4-H Listening Session Townhall with County Board Supervisor Friske
TINA L. SCOTT
Lincoln County, Wis., residents were invited to attend a 4-H Listening Session Townhall last Wednesday evening, Sept. 14, 2022, in the upstairs Board Room at the Lincoln County Service Center, 801 N. Sales St. in Merrill.
The listening session was organized by UW-Extension employees after speaking with and at the request of Lincoln County Board Chairman Don Friske, according to the Extension. It was not a formal Lincoln County Board meeting or formal meeting of any Committee of the Lincoln County Board, but rather, an opportunity for County Board Chairman Friske to hear firsthand from constituents in regard to their concerns.
The meeting stemmed from concerns related to proposed cuts to the Lincoln County budget, a budget that still needs to be voted on by the entire Board. The Board had a meeting Sept. 20 during which a public comment session was planned, along with Board review of the budget. There was no indication the Board would be voting on the proposed budget cuts yet. By the time you read this in print, the meeting will have been held and we will report on the outcome of that in next week’s edition.
But here is the back story: Recently, the Lincoln County Finance Committee, in an effort to create a sustainable 2023 budget, proposed eliminating (among other cost-cutting measures) the funding to the UW-Extension program. Many residents, after learning of the proposal, were upset.
The Lincoln County Finance Committee recommendation being put to the full County Board for consideration “would permanently eliminate 4-H in Lincoln County,” Chad Lashua, President of the Lincoln County 4-H Leader’s Association said. “This comes as quite a shock, as just last year the County increased the educator position from .5 to .8 of a full time position.”
“This indicated to us in 4-H, that the County supported our programming and supported the youth in the County,” he said. “Unfortunately, this was only a one-year investment.”
“If 4-H in Lincoln County is discontinued, all 4-H programming will need to be disbanded by the end of this year,” Lashua said.
Art Lersch, Area 3 Director at the UW-Extension office in Lincoln County, said that while the UW-Extension office administers the 4-H program in Lincoln County, it is not just the 4-H program in Lincoln County that is in jeopardy. There are many other area programs administered by the UW-Extension in Lincoln County.
Lersch made it clear that, should the Lincoln County Board cut funding of their $208,000 contribution to the UW-Extension office from their 2023 budget, what is being proposed would essentially close down the Extension office in Lincoln County.
The Extension has been in Lincoln County for more than 100 years and the County has always supported it, he said. It has always been a joint effort, a partnership, with the University funding about 55% of the cost and Lincoln County funding about 45% of the cost. That amounts to roughly $260,000 of funding from the University and $208,000 from Lincoln County, Lersch said.
We’ve worked together on this, he said, and it is just not feasible for the Extension to maintain the funds to keep it functioning without the County’s financial support. This has long been a partnership, and without one half of the partnership, the University wouldn’t be able to fund it on their own.
With regard to 4-H specifically, “4-H programming has been in Lincoln County for over 100 years and has helped countless youth grow and develop into productive responsible adults,” Lashua said. “This programming is not just animals and crafts, it is robotics, community service, leadership development, civic engagement, and mentoring, just to name a few. This past summer I was part of a 4-H Citizenship experience that took some Lincoln County and other Wisconsin youth to Washington D.C., to learn about government and civic engagement. This was at no cost to Lincoln County, and still youth benefitted from this opportunity. We met with both Senator Johnson’s and Senator Baldwin’s office to learn more of what was done on Capitol Hill and to allow our youth to ask questions and learn. This is not politically biased and allows everyone to see both sides. If the County forces 4-H in Lincoln County to disband, we lose those opportunities. The youth met other 4-H delegates from across the country. They shared ideas, shared our values, and learned from each other.”
“Adult leaders are supported through multiple training programs provided to them at no cost by 4-H, covering topics including diversity, equity, and inclusion,” he said. “There are also components that cover mental health and positive youth engagement. This programming is proven to be comprehensive and beneficial to not only new leaders, but as a refresher to those already involved with youth programming.”
“The skills that youth develop in 4-H are priceless. No matter the interest that youth have, there is an avenue for them to pursue. It would be hard to find another youth program that is as inclusive, and not subject specific that allows all youth to work together, collaborate, and build leadership skills,” Lashua said. “No matter what the project is, communication, leadership, and youth-to-youth mentorship are key components in 4-H, and are promoted throughout the youth experience.”
“I have not found programming like this in other organizations and do not support the removal of this programming,” he said. “We understand that there is a budget shortfall, but cutting support for our youth and future generations is more costly than the immediate cost to the budget. Other options are available and we hope they are considered.”
At the meeting last Wednesday evening, a group of about 30 kids were in attendance, and about 20 young people involved in 4-H stepped up to speak on behalf of the program, urging the Lincoln County Board not to approve the proposed 2023 which would eliminate all funding to the UW-Extension.
“I am grateful for the opportunity that Chairman Friske gave for the 4-H program to have a chance to voice their concerns,” Mary Sosnovske said. “The statements that the 4-H members shared had most of the room fighting tears and giving applause.”
“I don’t think Chair Friske was aware that the 4-H program is run through USDA,” she said. “They require a land grant university to facilitate 4-H in each county, thus UW-Extension must be funded in order to have a 4-H program in Lincoln County.”
“The 4-H program does not receive funds from the County,” Sosnovske explained. “Each Club is financially independent. The Extension agents and office staff are only partially funded through the County, over half comes through the State.”
“I was saddened that a lot of what Chair Friske and Ms. DePasse spoke about was cutting items to make up the budget deficit,” she said. “Not much was said about how to create or bring in revenue.”
“Overall, this is a frustrating situation,” said Brittany Bloch, a parent in attendance and who is concerned about the proposed cuts to the UW-Extension funding. “I understand the hardships the Board is facing with this budget, but cutting a department that serves so many in the community is not the answer.”
“This closure would affect thousands of community members of all ages,” she said. “Not only would we lose 4H (and likely the fair, seeing as the 4H projects comprise a large amount of the event), but we would also lose other vital programs such as FoodWIse, Community Development, StrongBodies, and the Raise Your Voice Club. In a county that is facing astronomical numbers of children needing home placements, cutting youth programs focused on personal development seems to be backward thinking and will likely lead to a trickle down effect of grave proportions.”
“Last night many good ideas were brought to the Chairman [Friske], but I worry they may have fallen on deaf ears,” Bloch said.
“Our turnout for the 4-H program was great, with over 30 kids representing their clubs, plus numerous 4-H leaders, alumni, and concerned community members,” she said.
“It was a very emotional night, but it showed what 4-H is all about. Kids of all ages, from Cloverbud to Seniors, spoke to the Chairman with strength and humility. You don’t often see kids nowadays become this engaged and proactive, but this is what the 4-H program teaches youth – to be responsible, respectable, resounding members of their community.”
“The need to have 4-H in our community, not just for us, but for every kid in the future is huge,” said Kassie Schepp, a former Pine River resident, a 4-H Leader for the Pine River Pioneer Sunrise 4-H Club, and an alumni of Lincoln County 4-H.
“We raise leaders. These kids said it themselves [at the listening session] … there’s not much for them to do in this town, and not much to keep them around. Many of them involved in 4-H, are prime examples of the leaders we will have in the future. Many kids spoke with their heart and their passion. The hundred plus people in that room to speak of how great 4-H is, should mean something …”
“Chairman Friske kept stating they aren’t trying to take 4-H away, that was never the plan. But you need the UW-Extension in order to have 4-H.”
“This community needs these programs,” Schepp said. “Yes, 4-H is important, but so is every other aspect of the UW-Extension. After last week’s finance meeting with a 4-1 vote, the Finance Committee voted to cut the whole UW-Extension budget out. Without the Extension, there will NOT be 4-H. If the County drops the budget for UW-Extension, we cannot have 4-H on its own. … In order to have 4-H in Lincoln County, you MUST have a county 4-H educator. With the budget cut, this wouldn’t happen and 4-H will disappear.”
“It seems Chairman Friske, did not know that we need the UW-Extension to provide 4-H or any other program they run (strong bodies, raise your voice clubs, suicide prevention, food wise and so many others),” Schepp said. “The Board brought on this decision very fast, and tried to sneak away with what was happening to the budget, not leaving time for solutions.”
Many County Board members had not been informed of the results from the Finance Committee meetings and their Sept. 9 4-1 vote to eliminate the UW-Extension, Schepp said. Many were also not advised about the 4-H listening session, she added.
“Why is it a secret to have the community be heard about what matters? These are people you vote on for the County, to handle your tax payer dollars. As they all received a raise, they are cutting programs that will affect multiple aspects of the whole Lincoln County community. They claim 4-H as a want, not a need. But what happens to all these kids when such a program is taken away?” Schepp said.
“Did you know all of the kids who advocated for 4-H [at the listening session] all learned their public speaking in 4-H?” she said.
“And some of those small children started showing steers at the young age of nine. Can you imagine a 9-year-old working with and handling a 1300+ pound steer? Well, they do.”
“It takes hard work, dedication, team work, sportsmanship, and did I mention dedication? Not only for steers but for any project they learn through 4-H. A lot of the youth talked about the fair, because for them it is the highlight of the summer, and the highlight of the 4-H year.”
“Yes. Lincoln County is not a 4-H fair anymore, but they still work hand in hand so the 4-H club exhibitors can exhibit their projects. Some projects, such as steers, start a whole year before the actual fair,” Schepp said.
“As Brynlee Heidemann stated at the meeting, she loves to show and wants everyone to be able experience what she has been able to experience. Her mom, Jessica, brought up the fact that Brynlee’s steer for next year, Carl, is already in the pasture being worked with for next fair year. To spend a whole year working on your project, marketing them towards businesses in our community, be financially dependent for that animal, and still learn something new every year you show is amazing,” she said. “The skills these kids take away from that, you can’t get anywhere else.”
“The opportunities are countless, and the life skills are unmeasurable,” Schepp said.
“The 4-H pledge states: I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world.”
“We are here to serve our community, help the youth, and help everyone else,” she said. “Our club has helped this community in multiple ways. We run food pantry drives, write valentines for veterans, sing carols to elderly at Pine Crest. We have cleaned the highway, raked leaves at Make a Difference Day, come together, and most of all we have volunteered our time to make the County Fair what it is today. We teach the future of agriculture through our projects, and most of all make fantastic leaders.”
“And we are just one program,” Schepp said. Losing the other programs the UW-Extension supports would also be damaging to the community, she said.
An email was sent to Lincoln County Chairman Don Friske requesting his comments on the meeting and the proposed action of the Board, but as of Tuesday when this issue was going to print, he had not responded.