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Ag agent issue enters holding pattern in Pierce County

Pierce County Board members finalized the 2018 budget without adding money for an agricultural agent — but left the door open for that to change.

Instead of amending the budget to flow funds from one department back into the open position, county supervisors let the vacancy remain while state funding for the UW-Extension program takes shape.

Board members on Nov. 14 finalized the $19.6 million levy for 2018, which represents an 11.44 increase. Spending measures include a $15.7 million operating levy, $3.22 million for debt service, $482,740 in county library funds and $200,000 for county-aid bridges.

The central question before supervisors was whether to restore funding for the ag-agent position, which has been vacant since January 2016. As at their October meeting, board members heard from community members urging the position to be restored, arguing the ag-agent can be vital in helping new farmers establish their operations.

But an effort by County Board Supervisor Mel Pittman to tap up to $10,000 in Land Conservation Department cost-sharing funds to fund a part-time ag agent failed. Pittman, of Plum City, proposed arranging an agreement to use Pepin County's ag agent and have him work one day a week in Pierce County at 20 percent of a full-time equivalent.

"That could work for us," Pittman said after the meeting. "We don't necessarily need a full-time position."

Among those in the majority opposing the measure was County Board Chairman Jeff Holst, who said it was up to UW-Extension — not Pierce County — to solve the funding problem.

"I'd like to see the state come forward and fund the damn thing," he said after the meeting.

Holst, of Hager City, also said there are funds within the local Extension coffers that could be reshuffled to fund an ag agent if members of that committee wished to do so.

He called the 20-percent position "a Band-Aid," but said he'd be supportive of the plan if others got behind it.

Other supervisors also voiced concerns about uncertain Extension funding from the state, in spite of a lingering sentiment of support for some version of the position to return.

Holst said there appeared to be support for an information recommendation Supervisor Jon Aubart of River Falls made to revisit the issue in January. That's when state officials were expected to begin sorting out UW-Extension funding for counties.

"Let's see what the state says," Holst said after the meeting.

Pittman said the question is whether the state will allocate funds without a commitment from the counties.

"I hope it doesn't get into who has to make the first move here," he said.

Still, he said he's confident something will emerge that Holst will back, calling the chairman "a man of his word."

"I think something will happen, yes," Pittman said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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