County 4-H future questioned

BY STACI WILSON

The future of the 4-H program in Susquehanna County was called into question last week when two extension support staff employees were notified by the commissioners that their positions would be eliminated effective Dec. 31.

Over 40 people packed the standing room only commissioners meeting room on July 11 with an overflow crowd spilling out into the clerk’s office in the courthouse.

In an ironic twist, the county commissioners presented a 30-year employee service recognition to an agriculture extension employee who was handed the termination letter the day before the meeting.

Rich Mackey, of the Susquehanna County Penn State Extension Board, asked the commissioners about the future of Penn State Extension in the county given their decision to lay-off the support staff. “Where do the commissioners see the future of 4-H and the Master Gardeners programs,” he asked.

Commissioner Michael Giangrieco said, “We wantPennStateto stay here, we want 4-H to stay.” He explained that, at the heart of the issue, is a controversy over whether the support staff positions are county orPennStateemployees.

“Nobody intends to cut the 4-H program,” he said.

Mackey said he would attempt to facilitate a meeting between the commissioners,PennStateand the extension executive board to work out how the county can continue “to meet everyone’s needs.”

“I’m a passionate advocate of 4-H’s value to our children,” Mackey said.

The commissioners explained that they were eliminating a county position and not the program.

The letter received by staffers Evie Goff and Kim Grace, indicated the county 4-H program was being eliminated, Mackey said.

Chief Clerk Sylvia Beamer said the letter was meant to convey the county program was being eliminated.

Dr. Mike Kowalewski asked, “What is the purpose of eliminating support staff?”

Commissioner MaryAnn Warren said the county was looking to get county employees under the right department.

Giangrieco said the letter contained a “poor choice of words.”

The county, the commissioners took turns explaining, is looking forPennStateto pick up the employees in a “transfer” that would clarify who the staffers work for.

But the purpose of the change is not, they said, to eliminate the program. The commissioners all promised that the county would still financially support the positions “to some extent.”

Audience member Pauline Fallon said the NRCS coordinator position was eliminated by the county but then picked up by NRCS.

She said the commissioners were not seeing the value of the work provided by those employees.

“Now you are going to force another agency to pick up funding for these positions,” Fallon said.

Warrenmaintained that there would be support toPennState.

Commissioner Chair Allen Hall said the county was looking at positions within the county that report to outside organizations and do not directly work for the county.

Hall said the commissioners were looking at pension costs for the people that work for other agencies but would, if continued in its present form, collect retirement from the county’s defined benefit plan.

“Call it whatever you want,” Fallon said, “but to me it sounds like you’re trying to get rid of people before it costs you too much money.”

In an effort to clarify the commissioners’ position, Mackey said, “You wantPennStateto hold the positions, but (the county) is willing to help pay for the positions.”

He also said thatPennStatehas made a commitment that it would, at a minimum, keep a 4-H presence in this county.

Evie Goff, one of the woman who received the letter, said that over her 30 years, that the 4-H program has provided her with the greatest satisfaction.

“Did you read the letters handed to Kim and me,” Goff asked the commissioners through tears. “It did say we were being terminated.”

“If we were able to sit down with you ahead of this, all of this could have been avoided,” Goff said indicating the crowd of 4-H supporters in attendance at the meeting.

Goff handed the letter she received back to the commissioners to read.

Someone from the audience said, “You guys handled this really poorly. They deserve an apology from you for handling it so poorly.”

Gene Hubbard, a Harford Fair Director, said the support shown by the attendance at the meeting demonstrated the community’s support for 4-H and the extension programs.

Over the past few years, membership in 4-H has grown from 364 members in 2010 to 420 members this year and 98 leaders.

Last year, 4-Hers entered over 700 projects in the Harford Fair.

In addition to Fair entries, county 4-Hers also participate in local, state and national level contests, clinics and camps.

The 4-H livestock sale, held each year at the Harford Fair, grossed about $190,000 with the proceeds going back to the member to cover the expenses associated with raising an animal; to help with the costs of a future project; or to bolster individual college savings.

The Master Gardener program has 27 participants who each spend at least 35 hours annually volunteering in the community through educational gardening programs. There are also two certified pollinator gardens in the county.