ANNAPOLIS – When Calvert County resident Patricia Tantum needed advice on how to ensure her home-canned salsa would be safe for consumption she knew exactly who to contact — Ruth Miller, an educator in the Calvert office of the University of Maryland’s Cooperative Extension.
The response was immediate: Throw it out. Tantum had forgotten to add lemon or lime juice and, without its acid, the salsa could already be infected with pathogenic organisms that could make her family sick.
“I think it’s an invaluable service,” Tantum said, although she was disappointed she had to throw out all her canned goods.
Tantum is one of the many who seek assistance from university cooperative extension experts. But that help is increasingly threatened by statewide budget cuts.
The cuts, amounting to $1.6 million, or 9 percent from 2003 state funding, were followed by a July hiring freeze.
The 2003 cuts were part of Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s statewide agency slashing to close an estimated $1.2 billion deficit. More budget tightening may be in order, as projections of next year’s shortfall range from $400 million to $800 million, according to recent reports.
Ehrlich’s spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said the cuts were “implemented with an effort to affect services as little as possible.”
But the former extension director says deeper cuts may mean closing some county extension offices and consolidating services.
“If these cuts continue, we may be forced to look at a regional approach,” said Tom Fretz, who ended his tenure as dean and director of extension and the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources on Aug. 28.
Extension programs, such as 4-H youth programs and technical advice to state farmers, constitute the public arm of the university’s mandate as a land-grant college to provide its research to state citizens.
“The university is starting to walk away from one of its primary roles,” Fretz said.
The extension maintains offices in all 23 counties and Baltimore, but many offices are understaffed.
Budget cuts also stripped extension of its soil testing laboratory this summer and shut down the College of Agriculture’s print shop, which publishes extension newsletters and pamphlets.
Further cuts will be needed, according to Bruce Gardner, interim dean and director of extension.
“We know what we have to cut. We haven’t decided how to implement the cuts,” he said.
But some extension officials are convinced of what’s ahead.
“We’re going to have to cut back all the educational opportunities we provide,” said Reggie Harrell, eastern region director.
Harrell saw his job change over the summer as extension eliminated its central region director position through a retirement, reducing the number of directors from three to two.
The consolidation has forced him to adopt a more collective approach, but Harrell said that was part of a national trend.
“Extension is being hit in every state,” he said.
Some land-grant states, such as Minnesota, have closed their county offices and rely on regional centers.
“I don’t think we can take another 10 percent cut,” said Fretz.
Gardner said that he anticipated no county closings this year. Extension is trying to “spread itself,” in order to cope with its losses, he said.
With the closing of the print shop, extension is considering private outsourcing for its publications and more reliance on the Internet. For soil testing, the university now provides a list of local private companies that can provide the same service for a comparable price.
“We don’t know whether it’s going to work or not,” said Harrell. “Efficiency is definitely going to fall off, we can’t afford to lose effectiveness.”