The Josephine County Commissioners drew a flurry of statewide headlines last week when they voted to strip local funding from the Oregon State University Extension Service and its 4-H program as well as terminate a decades-long service agreement over what they claim is a “woke agenda.”
Specifically, it was alleged that 4-H participants representing the JOE’s Place organization were prohibited from wearing clothing during livestock competitions because it was adorned with icons promoting the Christian faith. JOE’s is an acronym for “Jesus Over Everything.”
The OSU Extension Service maintains that as a government-funded organization, they are bound by “religious neutrality.” But the commissioners feel that policing religious expression runs contrary to community values.
“It just saddens me, you taking God out of 4-H,” Board Chair Herman Baertschiger said during a meeting last month. “It still says ‘In God, we trust’ on every single dollar bill. We say it in our Pledge of Allegiance. It’s just politics. It’s just flat politics.”
A hostile tone was struck June 7 when the commissioners adjourned their regular session and convened as the governing body of the 4-H/Extension Service District.
The board was joined in a packed Anne G. Basker Auditorium by OSU Extension Service staff members Kayla Sheets, office manager; Chris Elliott, associate director; and Ivory Lyles, director. The latter made only brief remarks over Zoom from his office at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
“I would encourage and appreciate an opportunity to have an ongoing conversation so that we can continue to grow and strengthen our relationship in Josephine County,” Lyles said. “Our youth and our families and community individuals in the county benefit drastically from the programs offered by OSU Extension and I would hate to think one small bump in the road would interrupt that ongoing relationship.”
Sheets and Elliott accused the commissioners of being unwilling to meet with OSU staff to discuss the issues that caused them to consider defunding 4-H services.
“I know that our staff has reached out numerous times to meet with the commissioners to meet with staff and those have fallen on deaf ears,” alleged Elliott. “I say that not to call anyone out, I say that because these are questions we want to answer. We are accountable with our dollars; we don’t want any perception they’re administratively heavy or that we’re spending dollars in a way that is not appropriate for the taxpayers in this county. That’s not how we operate.”
Baertschiger took umbrage with Elliott’s accusation. After ascertaining that Elliott resides in Lane County, the board chair rebutted, “You come down here to our county, you stand at that podium and you accuse these three commissioners of not giving meetings to your folks down at the extension service? That’s absolutely wrong. Do you know what space we have to work in? You have to have an appointment because we have to notice it 24 hours to meet with your folks. I don’t recall anybody ever asking for that.”
Elliott maintained that he possesses emails and records proving an effort was made on OSU’s behalf to meet with the commissioners.
After saying they “will look into that,” Baertschiger continued, “We have a big problem.The kids left. The vast majority of them left and started their own group; they got their own livestock sale now. So you got a problem. Something happened. They left for a reason you got to address that I don’t think you’re ever going to get them back personally.”
“When you have all these kids and families leave a program, it’s failing,” Baertschiger went on. “Why would I want to fund something that’s failing?”
OSU has conceded that there has been a decline in 4-H youth participation, with the number falling from 277 participants at the end of their last season to 49 at the start of this year. That number has rebounded to 130 youths participating in 4-H currently.
Meanwhile, the new youth livestock organization Baertschiger referenced in the meeting, “Youth and Ag of Josephine County,” has reached around 300 members.
One point of contention that came up June 7 was what exactly Josephine County taxpayers’ money is funding, compared to what state and federal grants cover.
According to Sheets, “Our budget pays for expenses associated with the county office such as clerical wages, office space, maintenance, travel and office supplies.”
Elliott added, “This relationship has existed for over a hundred years. The relationship between OSU and Josephine County. We’re proud of our legacy of work that we’ve done over the last several decades, the relationships that we’ve built, the community folks that we’ve worked with and the cooperation with the residents in Josephine County. Our mission is to help every Oregonian thrive.”
Baertschiger wanted to clarify that the board’s decision to end their partnership with OSU Extension was not solely based on the clash over religious expression, but rather, the commissioners’ determination to run a tight ship with a limited budget played a large role as well.
“The controversy is over the budget more than anything,” said the board chair. “It’s not over the programs. There’s a lot of value in the programs; there always has been. But there are some questions over the budget.”
The elimination of the OSU service district will deprive the program of an anticipated $414,000 in funding over the next year, according to Sheets.
Commissioner John West made the case that most of this was being spent on non-essential expenditures.
“$323,000 of it goes to administration fees, not to the kids or to any of the small farms, any of that stuff,” West asserted, referencing a chart supplied to him by OSU.
He continued, “Last weekend when the kids checked in 165 pigs there wasn’t one of these paid administrators there helping the kids check in anything so the taxpayers are paying $323,000 for administration fees. At this point we’re not talking necessarily about OSU, we’re talking about how, in my opinion, the system has figured out how to take taxpayer money and funnel it all to administration fees for staff that do not apparently take their time to go out and help those kids.”
Elliott rebutted, “What this county pays for through their tax levy is the operation of that office – the facility, the supplies, the travel, the things that happen here to keep the extension service running. All of those other resources, employees, time, budget, are paid for through state dollars and federal dollars so that’s not reflected in your budget because that’s not the local tax service district.”
Despite Elliott’s points, West voiced his opinion that the county is overpaying for administration costs and said he took “offense” to the notion that a big increase in 4-H participation was on the horizon, as an OSU representative had testified.
“I feel like he thought we was (sic) stupid,” said West. “I don’t see how you’re going to increase the kid participation 300 percent this year alone.” He added, “The government seems to find out how to have three people to do one person’s job.”
When the time came for public testimony, Baertschiger called on speakers based on whether they supported or opposed the 4-H service district and alternated between them in a point/counterpoint format. He pleaded with them to keep their comments as brief as possible given the vast crowd, so large that every seat was filled and late-comers were forced to stand. The board chair had to interject several times during the meeting to halt audience applause or outbursts. At one point he threatened to postpone the meeting if the crowd continued to act disorderly, raising his gavel threateningly.
There ended up being the same amount of community members wishing to speak in support of 4-H as there were those wishing to speak in opposition.
For the most part, supporters tended to be older community members that benefit from extension services other than 4-H, such as fitness classes, the master gardeners program, food bank, etc. who feared these services would go away if OSU Extension took a funding hit.
Those opposed to OSU Extension funding tended to be parents who felt 4-H personnel are no longer very responsive to youths and do not provide an adequate level of service; several addressed the JOE’s Place controversy as a factor in their 4-H opposition.
Following public commentary, Board Chair Baertschiger entertained a motion in the matter of the 2023/24 4-H Extension Service District. Commissioner Dan DeYoung made a motion to adopt the proposed budget, but his motion died for lack of a second.
Then, Commissioner West made a motion to amend the budget by eliminating the $0.459 per $1,000 assessed value tax, which would effectively disband the service district. Baertschiger seconded the motion.
Before the vote, DeYoung explained, “I don’t want to just unfund it and make it go away because that’s a snap decision.” Rather, his preference would be to “pump the brakes for one year” and let OSU Extension work on a plan to address community concerns.
“When your kid goes out and drives 100 miles an hour and crashes the car you don’t go, ‘It’s the car’s fault; I’m gonna go buy the kid a new car,’” West argued. You try to figure out what the problem is and you correct it, so in my opinion we are correcting the problem” by defunding the OSU Extension Service District.
West was confident the services of OSU Extension can be funded for the next year off of state and federal grants, and implied that in a year, if 4-H is back in the good graces of the community, the service district could be revived.
He concluded, “It just appalls me that we put more merit into the adults than we do the kids when the kids should be the focus.”
“This illusion that all these programs are going to instantaneously go away after today is simply that – an illusion,” said Baertschiger. “The 23/24 budget is fully-funded for Oregon State University Extension Services. The ending balance would be $475,000 for the general fund and $272,000 for the building fund. It’s about three-quarters of a million dollars so from now until next June 30 it’s fully-funded. Nothing’s going away – Master Gardeners ain’t going away; nothing’s going away.”
The vote was 2-1 to defund the 4-H Extension Service District and 2-1 to terminate the service agreement with Oregon State University. DeYoung was the no vote in both instances.