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Citing a $2.7M reserve, McLean County cuts Extension tax levy

The organization that runs county fairs and provides agriculture education in McLean, Livingston and Woodford counties has agreed to a significant cut in its McLean County tax levy after several county board members complained the organization was holding too much tax money in reserve.

During a sometimes contentious meeting of the McLean County Extension Board on Monday, county board members Catherine Metsker, Jim Soeldner and Gerald Thompson each told extension board and staff members the extension office is asking for too much money from the county when it has $2.7 million in reserve.

The extension council agreed to seek a $30,000 levy from McLean County after the three county board members—all of whom represent rural areas of the county—balked at a request for a $300,000 levy.

Members of the McLean County Extension Board on Monday agreed to a $30,000 annual tax levy after initially requesting $300,000.

“We’re not saying the funding should be cut because you’re not doing what you are supposed to do,” Metsker said. “What we are saying is spend down and then we can start looking at having a less-reduced levy.”

Extension, which is affiliated with the University of Illinois, is partially funded by tax levies in each of the counties it serves, along with matching state funds.

Extension director Bobbie Lewis-Sibley indicated the funding cut amounts to a larger reduction because the state provides 60 cents for every dollar raised by the local county levy.

Lewis-Sibley said the U of I extension requires county offices maintain an 18-month reserve in case of a budget emergency. She said that cushion kept the extension “afloat” during Illinois’ two-year budget impasse in which the office received no state money.

“We are kind of stuck between what the university wants and requires of us for carryover and between what the McLean County Board likes to see,” Lewis-Sibley said after the meeting. She indicated in her first eight years with the extension office, the county levy topped $500,000 until 2019 when the county reduced it to $375,000. She said the county had indicated at the time that there would be a one-year reduction.

Soeldner suggested that large a reserve is too much for the county to absorb. He indicated the extension office was able to grow its fund balance in four of the last five years, bringing in $961,000 in 2020 and $710,000 during the 2022 budget year.

“It’s hard for me to ask the taxpayers to keep shelling out more and more money when you’ve got money in surplus that you can use to run the program,” Soeldner said.

Thompson said he was also concerned about the direction of the extension program in recent years because of feedback he said he heard from “numerous people.” He cited volunteers leaving, and a drop in ag literacy in the county over the last decade.

“When I started, McLean County was top tier. We are no longer there,” Thompson said of the extension program.

Lewis-Sibley said the volunteer departures were isolated incidents and noted the extension office no longer runs the ag literacy program. It’s handled by the McLean County Farm Bureau.

Lewis-Sibley said some are upset over extension branching out beyond agriculture to include programming like robotics and coding. She said the program has to evolve with the times.

“Our kids are different, society is different these days and so we have to evolve our programming to meet the needs of the people who are doing the programming, not just the people who are doing the programming,” Lewis-Sibley said.

Thompson declined further comment after the meeting.

Lewis-Sibley added extension does not plan any programming or staff reductions this year. She said the office currently has about 30 employees and has two positions currently vacant.

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