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Louisville office for community gardens, 4-H weighs cuts under new city budget

A community garden with flowers and produce
Ryan Van Velzer
Jefferson County's Soil and Water Conservation District escaped a proposed city funding cut, but the county's cooperative extension will take a financial hit.

The Jefferson County Cooperative Extension has tough decisions to make after the Louisville Metro Council practically halved its funding.

Jefferson County’s cooperative extension is weighing potential layoffs and a reduction in services, including amenities it provides at local community gardens, after Louisville Metro Council slashed the city’s contribution to the agency by $152,500 for the next fiscal year.

“We're really going to have to take a hard look at what we're doing and the money that we have and see what we can keep going,” said Catherine Shake, chair of Jefferson County’s extension district board.

Shake told LPM News the cooperative extension, which oversees several community gardens and offers educational and 4-H Youth Development programs, historically has been “terribly underfunded.”

For example, she said the agency already lacked the funds to repair and replace tillers at the community gardens. Now they’re debating if they can afford to keep providing portable toilets and dumpsters at those locations, with the city’s budget cut about to take effect next month.

She also doesn’t know if the extension office will be able to maintain its 10-person staff.

Louisville’s new, $1.1 billion budget includes a 46% reduction in funding for the cooperative extension compared to the current budget.

Shake said a Metro Council member told her they anticipate Louisville will have a budget surplus later this year, and that could free the city up to provide additional money to the extension office.

“But there's no guarantee, and you can't definitively plan on having that money if you don't know it's going to come in,” she said.

The cooperative extension would’ve lost nearly all its support from the city under the initial budget proposal suggested by Democratic Mayor Craig Greenberg this spring. He recommended reducing Louisville’s contribution from $335,000 to $30,000, but the final budget Metro Council members approved Thursday night provides $182,500 to the agency instead.

Greenberg also wanted to cut city funding for the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District down to $30,000, but the council’s final budget protected the district’s current level of city funding at $113,200.

The conservation district and cooperative extension are both part of decades-old, nationwide networks of agencies that support local agriculture.

Sarah Beth Sammons is one of seven supervisors elected to lead Jefferson County’s conservation district. She said it’s “a relief for now” that the conservation district’s funding was protected in the budget, and she feels great about how local residents spoke up in support of their mission.

“I think that the real outpouring of support from the community really took a lot of people by surprise,” she said. “That's what I keep hearing from most of the Metro Council people that I've spoken with.”

However, she’s concerned about the still-steep funding cut to the cooperative extension, which helps the conservation district offer free soil tests. That initiative helps local residents check their land for lead, a dangerous contaminant, and for nutrients, so they can determine how much fertilizer they need to grow plants.

Sammons and Shake each said they’re thinking about trying to build support for establishing a small local tax to fund their agencies.

“I’d really like to move forward and use this momentum and synergy that we have created with trying to save our institutions here in Jefferson County and try to get a millage tax passed,” Sammons said.

They both said most other Kentucky counties use a dedicated tax to finance their local conservation districts and cooperative extensions, and that’s a bigger and more stable source of funds than relying on city officials’ annual decision-making.

“It's a cause that I believe in – that I believe is important to Metro Louisville,” Shake said of the Jefferson County cooperative extension. “It's important to our people to have safe access to local foods.”

The agencies would need Metro Council’s buy-in to pursue a new tax.

Morgan is LPM's health & environment reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.

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