From master gardeners and 4-H leaders to volunteers who help senior citizens sort through the maze of health insurance, more than a dozen supporters of the Sedgwick County Extension Center urged commissioners Wednesday to back off a proposed 15 percent funding cut.
It would be devastating, they said.
Center director Bev Dunning has said she will not be able to fill a 4-H agent job and a program assistant position if the county cuts $161,000 from her budget. She also expects to have to lay off two support staff members.
A former 4-H member who now volunteers for the program, Anthony Seiler told commissioners that "4-H literally has made me who I am today."
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The 21-year-old who recently finished an internship with Sen. Pat Roberts' office in Washington, D.C., said 4-H, through the extension center, "helped me grow from a painfully shy" 7-year-old into a leader.
He said he worries that other young people won't get that chance if there are fewer 4-H agents.
The county is tightening its belt, trying to get spending more in line with revenue. The county faces a projected $16.3 million deficit next year. The budget County Manager William Buchanan gave to commissioners to consider last week would cut the deficit to $3.4 million next year and to zero by 2013.
Buchanan directed county department heads to cut their budgets 6.6 percent, except for those involved in public safety, where he asked for cuts of 3.3 percent. He said in an Eagle story Monday that the center's budget had increased 9.8 percent during the past five years while the county's general fund had increased 1.7 percent.
He repeated that message Wednesday and also noted his budget recommended completely cutting funding to some outside groups the county has supported in the past.
His budget proposes giving the extension center $937,348 next year.
Commissioners won't vote on the budget until Aug. 3. The public will get a second chance to comment at a hearing at 7 p.m. Aug. 2 in the commission chambers on the third floor of the Sedgwick County Courthouse, 525 N. Main.
Dawn Sauer said the center's "Got to Get Outside," or "G2G," program has been priceless for her family. It encourages families to spend time together outside.
Sauer said her family, which includes five daughters ages 2 to 12, has felt the pinch of a down economy.
"G2G has been a huge blessing to us," she said.
The family has gone fishing and on nature scavenger hunts and visited a wheat field, Botanica and the zoo, as well as other activities, all for free, she said.
"Please help families like mine who are struggling in this economy to continue to have opportunities for family time they can afford on a tight budget," she urged commissioners.
Mike Martin, a master gardener for the center, said the 270 volunteers in that program "are one of the jewels of this community. Citizens get a lot of bang for their buck out of this program. We try to be there for citizens, and we hope you'll be there for us."
He said having a volunteer coordinator for all of the master gardeners is crucial.
Kent Winter, a farmer, said the extension center's "unbiased, science-based advice" helps him make crucial decisions in his fields. Because each year is different due to weather and other conditions, farmers, he said, "don't have 50 years of experience. They have one year of experience 50 times."
Commissioner Tim Norton assured speakers that no decisions have been made yet about the budget.
"In my mind, everything is still on the table," he said.