Lee County is cutting its budget in the face of a $30 million operating deficit.
One program that could be seriously downsized is the Cooperative Extension Service, which is a 91-year partnership with the county and the University of Florida.
Extension service officials will meet with county budget planners Friday to talk about the cuts.
The Lee County Extension Service is located in Terry Park near downtown Ft. Myers. Outside there are small gardens, including a butterfly garden.
Inside there’s a commercial kitchen where canning and food safety is taught. There are classrooms where agents teach the latest techniques in plant plant cultivation and fertilizer and pesticide application.
Agents and volunteers are available Monday through Friday to help home gardeners identify garden pests, but as part of the county’s plan to streamline services the building would be shuttered.
Dave Harner heads up Lee County Parks and Recreation, which oversees the Cooperative Extension service.
“They have their own building, their own equipment, their own support staff,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is find a way to keep the extension functioning with the programming but find a way to incorporate some of those costs that we can share here in one main office.”
Parks and Rec’s main office is also at Terry Park – the two buildings share a parking lot, but Harner is proposing more than sharing space. Right now there are seven extension agents—two are funded by the County—the other five are funded by the University of Florida and the County.
Lee County pays 40 percent, UF pays 60 percent. Harner said some services they provide may be redundant.
“Let’s look at what their agents do and if they do a duplication of services,” he said.
The county also pays the salaries of the extension service’s administrative support staff . Last budget year the county allocated $750,000 to the Cooperative Extension Service.
Employees there have said it’s well worth the investment .
In a document detailing its contribution to the community, they reported the county received a return of $4.7 million on its $750,000 investment.
One of those programs is called “Florida Yards and Neighborhoods.”
Agent Thomas Becker teaches “green” gardening techniques.
“How to do a Florida yard, how to do it so you can save money, how can you do it so you can reduce the use the pesticides,” Becker explains. “Anyway people want to start adopting best practices – that’s where we want to start people.”
The Extension Service calculates the rain barrels it distributes through its Florida Yards and Neighborhoods program collect five and a half million gallons of water annually for irrigation. This saves money on potable water and spares ground water reserves.
The Extension does community outreach but most of the activity is centered at Terry Park, but Harner said that can be changed.
“North Ft. Myers, Estero, LeHigh, it doesn’t matter where – we have the facilities to offer those programming services to provide a greater range of the community that are going to be touched by offering it in different areas,” he said.
Altogether, Lee County Parks and Rec operates about 100 facilities – from community parks to boat ramps – with about 240 employees. Last year its budget was $27 million.
The extension service will be represented at Friday’s meeting by Charlie Vavrina, the District Extension Director for 11 counties on Florida’s west Coast from Polk to Collier. Vavrina said counties began cutting extension service budgets several years ago when the economic downturn hit.
“Lee is a little late to the dance if you will,” he said. “And from what I’m hearing surprisingly a little more severe from what I’ve seen in other counties in my district.”
When Vavrina talks to the county officials he said he’ll not just be making the case for retaining seven extension agents and the Terry Park Facility.
He said he will be stressing the significance of the county’s partnership with the University of Florida and all the resources that relationship provides.
County Parks and Recreation is also considering closing the City of Palms Park – former spring training home of Boston Red Sox. Lee County Commissioners have also approved a property tax increase.
They’re holding a budget meeting on Monday.