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December 5, 2012

Otsego budget cuts farm service funds

The Daily Star

---- — COOPERSTOWN — The tentative 2013 Otsego County budget would slice more than a quarter of the funding that the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service receives from the county, a cut that the top local official for the agency says would threaten programs promoting agricultural economic development.

The Otsego County Board of Representatives is expected to act on the $124.5 million spending package today.

The belt-tightening measures proposed in the budget would cut a number of public services and several jobs, including the only position dedicated to explaining health care benefits.

On a percentage basis, one of the biggest cutbacks would be felt by the Cornell Cooperative Extension, whose local office has six workers at its building on Lake Avenue in Cooperstown. Its allocation of $175,000 this year would be cut to $125,000 next year. The agency had requested $195,000, said Rep. James Powers, R-Butternuts, who is opposed to the cut.

Cornell Extension also has a smaller satellite office on Maple Avenue in Oneonta, where specialists explain food stamp benefits to eligible recipients, said Don Smyers, who oversees the programs and divides his time between an office in Schoharie County and the one in Cooperstown.

Smyers said his agency seeks to lend a helping hand to land owners who may not be full-time farmers but want to devote some portion of their land in Otsego County to agricultural endeavors. “With the budget reduction, that is going to be the biggest hit,” Smyers said. He noted it was to early to say whether the cutback would necessitate any staffing reductions.

Powers, a farmer and a beekeeper, said he objects to chopping the Cornell Extension allocation because “they are the only game in town for agriculture.”

While he said he was generally opposed to cutting county jobs, he said if there are to be such reductions they should be aimed at the Department of Social Services because it has more than 150 workers.

“It bothers me that we cut the departments that work for the working people in the county,” he said.

Members of the Board of Representatives, working with County Treasurer Dan Crowell, have over the past two months arrived closed a $5 million deficit by whittling away at programs, postponing planned purchases and renovations and trimming services they argued would cause the least amount of public pain.

Crowell told The Daily Star that some proposed cutbacks are likely to face resistance from individual county lawmakers. But he noted if they want to advocate for restoring those positions or programs, they would also also need to suggest ways to offset the expense of keeping those services fully funded.

“What are they willing to sacrifice to get back in what they want back in?” he asked.

Straining the county’s resources are a projected growth in the county subsidy for the Otsego Manor nursing home - rising to $5.5 million next ear, up from $3.3 million in the current year -- and spiraling pension costs for retired workers.