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WSU Extension volunteers plead to keep funds

Amidst grueling discussions about budget cuts, dozens of people packed into the Island County commissioners’ hearing room to praise a program that provides the community with an amazing variety of services, from a lighthouse docent program to gardening education to 4-H.

Washington State University Extension Service of Island County is among the so-called non-mandated programs targeted by some elected officials to be temporarily shut down in order to balance the budget. In fact, officials in King County recently voted to cut a number of Extension programs from their 2010 budget.

Snohomish County, on the other hand, this week restored $300,000 previously cut from its Extension program.

The outpouring of support last week may have helped persuade Island County commissioners to keep the program intact. The program is currently set to have a 4 percent budget reduction, which follows a 50-percent reduction over the last year.

Staff members and many of the 1,084 Extension volunteers lined up to extoll the virtues of the program.

“WSU is the center of a giant, growing and evolving volunteer community,” said Cathy d’Almeida, the sustainability coordinator for Coupeville.

Director Judy Feldman presented the commissioners with facts and figures to show that the county’s $150,000 investment in Extension is worthwhile. She explained that the agency also receives $356,000 in grant funds, $76,700 from donations and other generated funds, and $837 from publication sales each year. That’s all money that’s spent in the community.

In addition, she estimated that the volunteers provide more than $800,000 worth of hours each year.

“We cannot imagine finding any better return on an investment than that offered by continued support of the WSU Island County Extension Program,” Feldman said.

The Extension oversees a myriad of programs. Some are well-known, like 4-H and Master Gardeners; some are less visible, like noxious weed control, Waste Wise and the Shore Stewards.

Many people don’t realize that the Extension is responsible for many popular programs, such as the educational program at the Admiralty Head Lighthouse. About 36,000 people visit the lighthouse each year. At the meeting, volunteers pointed out that many of those people spend money at businesses and boost the economy.

“The bottom line is that closing the program makes no sense,” Mark DeYoung said.

The Master Gardeners do more than provide the community with gardening expertise. The gardeners take part in the Loganberry Festival at Greenbank Farm, plant display gardens and work at the famous Meerkerk Gardens.

Beach Watchers volunteer to do a variety of activities, from testing water for the county to removing junk from beaches. Waste Wise Volunteers learn how to reduce garbage and teach techniques to others.

The speakers repeated the message that it doesn’t make financial sense to cut a program that allows so many volunteers to contribute so much to the community. Feldman wrote that most of the volunteers have undergraduate, graduate or even doctorate degrees.

“The fundamental core of quality of life is volunteerism...” said Jim Patton, the director of the Port of Coupeville. “You couldn’t buy this quality of work. You couldn’t do that.”

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