The county could lose its local Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) office under a restructuring of the state agency that serves as a resource to farmers, ranchers and gardeners.
Under the plan, the number of extension offices statewide would be reduced from 106 in local communities to 22 regional offices.
The cost-cutting restructuring was put together by Virginia Tech University at the direction of the state’s General Assembly. The cooperative extension program is under the wing of the state university in Blacksburg.
The town of Washington has had an extension office for at least 70 years, according to Kenner Love, who has been the local extension agent for the past 15 years.
He works out of an office on Gay Street with Jenny Kapsa, a 4-H agent, and Janice Palmer, an administrative assistant.
“Everybody who has a garden finds their way to the office,” said Love.
His office also works with farmers and cattle owners and on issues involving wildlife, water and land use, as well as running the 4-H program for youngsters.
“Right now, we don’t know” if Washington will lose its local office, Love said.
A similar restructuring plan came up during the state budget cycle last spring, but was delayed when state legislators, responding to local pressure statewide, amended the budget to provide funds that would keep local VCE offices open.
If the Washington office closed, Love said, he would be working out of a regional “hub” that would not be in Rappahannock County. The most recent restructuring proposal located that hub in Culpeper County.
Love said “the county can keep an agent here with no support staff” under the restructuring.
The salary for Kapsa’s half-time position is paid by the county. Love’s is split between the county and state.
Just when this restructuring would take place is “a moving target” but right now it could happen next spring, Love said.
He said that the cooperative extension’s overall budget is currently $81 million and about $13 million is spent “in the field” in communities, Love said.
All states agencies “took their hits” during the budget review process, Love said.
He said operating the programs his office now offers “would be difficult if we don’t have the support staff. It would be very difficult to do.” And without a local office it would be harder to provide service to the community.
“If we’re not here we can’t do it to the same extent,” he said.
The restructuring issue came up for discussion Monday afternoon at the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors meeting at the courthouse.
“Virginia Tech will keep all of the positions, move them to Blacksburg and the regional offices will die on the vine,” said County Administrator John W. McCarthy. “The partnership [between the university and counties] tends to be one-way.”
He noted there were no local officials on the task force that looked at restructuring. The university did send out a two-page survey to county administrators.
“This is the worst-case scenario we can imagine,” he told the supervisors.
McCarthy said he has no problem with the service provided by the local extension office.
“We get good value from our local agents,” he said.
“They [the university] want us to come up with more money,” he said.
The board took no action. For now, McCarthy said, the county will be “watching the developments” as they evolve.
‘No misuse’ of jail funds, McCarthy, Luke say
In other business Monday, an audit of the county sheriff’s office that was critical of Sheriff Connie Smith’s depositing work release money into a separate account rather than with the county treasurer was discussed.
McCarthy noted there was “ambiguity” in the code on the matter but that the money would now be going to the treasurer as directed by the state auditor.
“There was no misuse or misspending of funds,” he said.
The funds were used for an addition to the jail office.
“Money was appropriated for that purpose,” said Commonwealth Attorney Peter Luke.
He noted the money in question was work-release money paid by inmates released from jail to work at outside jobs before returning to jail. They were not taxpayer funds.
“All of the money is accounted for,” Luke said.
Smith, who attended the supervisors meeting, made the same point herself. She said she has turned the money over to the county treasurer’s office.
Visitors Center visitation
In other matters, the board received a report from the Rappahannock County Visitors Center. For the seven-weekend period of Labor Day through Oct. 17, 554 visitors dropped by the center, on U.S. 211 just east of the town of Washington.
Of that number, 348 were from outside the county. The stated reasons for their visit included traveling to Old Rag, Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park; wineries, farm and house tours, apple picking, bicycling and visiting the town of Washington.
Also on the agenda was a presentation by representatives of the Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District. The mission of the district, which includes Rappahannock County, is to promote efforts that enhance clean surface and ground water and improve soil conditions. The five-county regional district has a 12-member board of directors representing each county.
The supervisors received a survey that will help the conservation district improve service.
“We provide technical assistance and educate” parties such as homeowners and farmers, explained John Genho, conservation district board member.
He noted the district has worked with Rappahannock on septic system and erosion and sediment issues.
Genho said it can assist the county with technical questions as it takes up the issue of open space and land use taxation. McCarthy said he will have a draft proposal before the board on that issue at the December meeting.
The supervisors made several appointments to boards. Rick Lessard was named to a four-year term on the county’s water and sewer board, Liz Blubaugh was named to the Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services Board, and Debbie Fluornoy will join the county’s social services board.