Friday, August 20, 2010

Delving deeper into budget cuts: part 2

By Jamey Dunn

Because the State Fair, which celebrates agriculture in Illinois, is in full swing this week, I thought I would delve into Gov. Pat Quinn’s $6.5 million in proposed cuts for the Department of Agriculture (Italics are pulled directly from Quinn’s proposal):

($1.1M) Operations Lump Sum
Additional management efficiencies

Jeff Squibb, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, said these funds would come from leaving vacant staff positions open and working to bring in more federal money. “We have been working for the past several years to wean the agency off of [state general revenue funds,]” he said.

Squibb said the department would attempt to find such efficiencies as keeping vacant positions open and monitoring office supplies. He says administrators will reassess the budget every month and may eventually have to make cuts to programs and services.

($5.4M) Grants Lump Sum
County Extension Programs
Soil and Water Conservation Districts reduced 42 percent in
administration costs to create efficiencies, while maintaining
capital projects to help control erosion and other conservation
projects in Illinois
State Fair Premiums reduced, resulting in smaller purses for
various contests

Richard Nichols, executive director of the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts, said the 42 percent reduction is from fiscal year 2010 funding levels. The organization could not, he said, maintain the two-person team, one administrative worker and one technical expert, that each district is meant to have as its staff.

“It’s going to be devastating,” he said of the proposed budget reduction. Some districts bring in money from handling permit reviews for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, but he  said the money is not coming in like it used to because development has shrunk as a result of the bad economy. He added that some districts receive county funds, but those are being cut, as well, because counties also face budget gaps. “Most on the soil and water conservation districts rely solely on state funding.”

Nichols said that because the districts are units of state government they cannot be consolidated or closed without referendums. So the end result may be that some districts continue to exist but not have employees to help bring in federal funds and advise on conservation projects.
“Some of them are going to go until they run out of money.”

He added that districts bring in “a lot of conservation funding. And, of course, those funds go to pay land-improvement contractors for what they do. So those are jobs we’re losing out on.”

Nichols said that some residents may not realize what their soil and water conservation districts do to prevent erosion, water contamination and flooding. “If they do their job correctly, nobody knows they’re out there. If they do their job correctly, all you see is grass and clean water.”

The University of Illinois Extension program has already undertaken a restructuring plan that will consolidate its 76 administrative units down to 30, each serving between three and five counties.

Robert Hoeft, interim associate dean of the Extension and outreach, said the Extension, which is best known for administering 4-H youth agricultural programs, is looking at program cuts. “In the past, we’ve tried to do anything everybody wanted. And we’ve just got ourselves spread so thin. So now we are going to target our programs to high-impact areas. So the things that are nice but don’t really make an impact in the state of Illinois — we are going to eliminate those things.”

Squibb said Extension officials did a good job of preparing residents for the changes. “They held hearings throughout the state; they were very proactive when it came to these budget cuts. …They recognized that in order to maintain some level of service, they were going to have to reduce their own spending.”

Squibb said overall he has not heard complaints at the fair where many in the agriculture community have gathered to compete and showcase farming. He said most people are aware that times are hard for the state and are prepared to see some tough cuts. “I am not saying they are happy. …We’re at a point now where we are cutting worthwhile programs. It is not an instance where we are eliminating — if you’ll pardon the phrase — pork.”

(For information on cuts to the Department of Children and Family services, see the first installment of Delving deeper into the budget cuts.)

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