What’s with the millage elections?

On Tuesday, five Michigan counties had millage questions on the ballot connected to MSU Extension. Several people have asked me if this is a new trend that we’ve started, and my answer is pretty straightforward: this is not something we have initiated. Certainly, we’ve never had this many millages on the ballot at one time. Prior to this month, we have only had dedicated millage votes for MSUE funding in three counties: Alger, Luce and Schoolcraft.

Luce was the first county to choose this path. In 1992, Luce County was facing revenue shortfalls and had to make tough choices on what to fund and what not to fund in their county budget. The Board of Commissioners decided that there was not enough funding for two popular but non-mandated programs, MSUE and recreation, in their budget, but they anticipated that residents would not want to go without these services. So they asked voters if they were willing to pay an increase in property taxes that would be split evenly between MSUE and recreation programs. Voters approved that and they have voted to renew the millage four times, most recently in February 2012.

Neighboring Alger County found itself in a similar predicament and followed Luce County’s example, holding a vote on a millage dedicated to MSUE, which was most recently renewed in 2011.

Schoolcraft County Commissioners took a similar stance with respect to funding for MSUE in 2011, holding a vote on a millage dedicated to MSUE in February 2011. That millage vote failed as did a follow-up vote late last year. The vote earlier this week was the third time a millage question was on the ballot in Schoolcraft County and it failed by 98 votes this time.

The other four counties that held millage votes for MSUE funding this week were Oscoda, Alcona, Iosco and Shiawassee. The millage passed in Alcona, Iosco and Shiawassee counties and failed in Oscoda. In some of these counties, the push for a millage came from residents who understood that the Board of Commissioners were seriously considering elimination of funding for MSUE in their county and they wanted to be sure that our partnership with the county remained intact.

Whether this becomes a trend or not remains to be seen. And that will be determined by the voters and elected officials of the counties we work with, not by MSU. Our position is that we want to have a partnership with every county in the state so that we can serve all Michigan residents. The county’s responsibility in that partnership is providing space for an office, providing support staff to serve that office, and providing operating funds for our programs. In turn, we ensure access for residents to all of MSUE’s programs and services, we staff at least one Extension educator in the county office, and we provide at least a half-time program coordinator for 4-H programs in the county.

County governments continue to be challenged by limitations on revenues, and the many demands for funding of programs under their responsibility. We really don’t have a stance on how we prefer for counties to provide funding for our programs. That’s a decision best made by elected officials and citizens of each county. But we stand ready to cooperate with counties as needed to help make the case for their support of our programs and presence in every county in this state.

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