When it comes to the formation of a joint extension district between Barton and Ellis counties, the Barton County Commission Monday morning heeded legal advice and broke with tradition.
The Barton County/Kansas State University Extension Council has explored an option to join the Ellis County Extension Council in forming the district. But first, the commissions in both counties must approve both a resolution supporting the venture and the actual service agreement.
“This really is an important issue,” Commissioner Jennifer Schartz said. Schartz had visited with Great Bend attorney Allen Glendenning last week and asked him to attend the commission’s study session Monday to discuss the matter which would create a new taxing entity in the county.
These districts are common in Kansas and in all the other instances, commissions OKed the resolutions prior to a finalized agreement, Glendenning told commissioners. However, he foresees the a potential problem with this model and suggested the agreement be finished first.
Why does this matter? The approval of the resolution starts a 60-day public protest period.
Glendenning said having the agreement in place would give the public a better idea what the change would mean and might head off any future legal problems, no matter how unlikely they may be.
The resolution already has to be published twice in the newspaper as a legal notice. Now, the agreement could be included as well.
“This way, the voters would have that to look at,” Glendenning said.
The idea resonated with Commissioner Kenny Schremmer. “We want everything out in the open.”
Although the order of action by the commission didn’t matter to Commissioner Alicia Straub, she said it could be a waste of time to work out a deal only to have it opposed by county residents. Besides “there’s no reason to re-invent the wheel” since the current method has worked in the past.
But, “I think we should have the actual agreement first,” Schartz said.
The resolution was listed as an agenda item for Monday’s meeting. However, it was tabled until a later meeting after the commission decided it wanted to hear from Glendenning first.
No official action was taken during the session, but representatives of the Barton County Extension Council were directed to meet with their Ellis County counterparts and arrive at an agreement.
A matter of time
The Ellis County Commission signed off on the resolution Oct. 10 without the agreement in place. Now, Straub said the two counties are on different trajectories and postponing the resolution vote in Barton County could slow the process.
Also, she fears the State of Kansas may swoop in and force council consolidations as cost-saving measures. By acting sooner rather than later, “we can put ourselves in the driver’s seat.”
Ellis and Barton County are natural partners, she said. The two have similar populations and tax bases, so they would be able to share the load equally, unlike could be the case with other surrounding, smaller, counties.
Either way, she said this would help determine if residents support extension programs or not. “This is one way of assuring sustainable extension services in the county.”
Glendenning said no matter which order of business is used, the amount of work would be the same. “It shouldn’t delay things.”
The agreement would ultimately need the approval of the Kansas Attorney General’s Office.
What is an extension district?
An extension district is a separate taxing entity that would set its own mill levy and be governed by a board elected by county residents. In this case, there would be four board members elected from each of the two counties and this board would set the budget and tax rate.
The state law allowing these districts was passed in 1991. Now, 45 of Kansas’ 105 counties fall under one of 16 districts.
Currently, county extension budgets are approved by the county commissioners and funded through the general fund. Barton County’s council receives about $200,000 annually.
So, Barton County Extension Agent Berny Unruh said this is not a new tax. Prior to this, extension council budgets were under the county’s general fund and not listed separately.
Existing staff will continue to maintain offices in their local counties, and will provide educational programming in both counties. Residents will also have access to additional agents.
Each county would continue to have its own county fair.
In a district, local governance remains extremely important, Unruh said. Each county is represented by four district governing board members, all of whom are elected by county residents.
Each county within the district has at least 24 representatives serving on Program Development Committees (PDC) that meet with, assist and advise district extension agents in the development of programs to address local and statewide needs.
Other advantages include improved operational and program delivery efficiency, and access for all youth to 4-H programs in both counties.
If approved, new joint council would not be official until July 1, 2017. At that time, an interim board would be appointed to serve until the first election is held.
The eight board members would be elected for staggered terms in November of odd-numbered years.
Straub said even with the July 1 date, the issue needs to get taken care of quickly so a board can be formed and a budget calculated.