University of Georgia Cooperative Extension is taking steps to implement a restructuring plan that calls for assigning Extension resources to counties based on a six level tier system.

The restructuring process is necessitated by state cuts to the Extension budget totaling 23 percent in the past two years. The plan is expected to take up to 18 months to implement. "We had 480 employees statewide and now we're down to 239 agents," Beverly Sparks, UGA College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences (CAES) Associate Dean for Extension said. "We can't continue to serve at the level we have."

The reduction in agents has come through retirement or agents voluntarily leaving, but reduced funding has prevented Extension from filling vacant positions, Sparks said. Statewide, Extension has 113 ag agents, 90 4-H agents and 36 Family and Consumer Sciences (FACS) agents. The restructuring plan will assign counties a tier ranking using criteria to determine how ag agents, 4-H agents and FACS agents may be best utilized. The criteria includes: the farm gate value of commodities produced in a county, county population and population of school-age children, county government funding of Extension, agricultural expertise needed in a county, potential to share ag agents across county lines, placement of 4-H educator/program specialists, county support of 4-H, FACS expertise needed in a county due to low public health, poverty, bankruptcy and foreclosure rates, location of regional educational centers and access to mass media.

CAES officials appointed a 20-member steering committee of UGA Extension faculty and staff from various levels and departments of the statewide organization to develop the plan. Since first meeting in March, the committee surveyed Extension employees, commodity groups, county government officials and county educators to get input.

Farm Bureau members surveyed

Georgia Farm Bureau members were surveyed during the organization's annual Commodity Conference in July. Sparks said district Extension leaders will now begin evaluating the needs of the counties in their districts according to plan criteria and assign tier rankings. "We have turned it back over to the district level directors who know the needs of their counties and know their county funding partners to decide how services should be allocated," Sparks said. "We should know in a couple of months where counties will be placed in the tier system." Under tier ranking, Extension services will be offered as follows: Tier 1 counties will have no local Extension office, but will have a basic 4-H program offered in the school system through an employee supervised by an agent in another county. A Tier 2 county will have a core 4-H program and a county Extension office staffed by a secretary to help with diagnostic services and CES resources. A County Extension Coordinator (CEC) from another county will serve as administrator and agents will be assigned as resources, but would not generally offer programs or make client visits. Tier 3 counties will have a core 4-H program, county office staffed with a secretary and a shared agent from a surrounding county who spends time in the office. A Tier 4 county will have a 4-H program, a county office with a secretary, one county-based agent who may be agriculture, FACS, 4-H or split between program areas. Tier 5 counties will have a 4-H program, a county office staffed with at least one support position and two or more agents (1 a CEC) to provide educational programs. Tier 6 counties will have 4-H, a CEC, multiple agents and assistants.