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Retirements put Extension in the hole

A retirement incentive intended to save money in the Virginia Cooperative Extension Office has left a gaping hole in the program.

A total of 32 extension agents around the state — including Rex Cotten, a 30-year veteran of the Suffolk Extension Office — chose a retirement incentive that was offered to help cover a budget shortfall, said Dr. Ray Ali, the associate director for field operations for the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

“The voluntary retirements that have occurred over the past several months position us to absorb some of those budgetary shortfalls,” Ali said.

In fiscal year 2010, the budget gap for Virginia Cooperative Extension and Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station was $2.38 million. In the current year, it is $2.1 million, and next year’s gap is expected to be $5.58 million.

“We had 60 retirements due to the alternative severance option program, which was directly related to budget cuts we’ve been experiencing for several years,” Ali said. “Those retirements were totally voluntary. However, that still leaves a vast vacancy … of thousands of years of experience that have retired on from the system.”

Leaders in the Extension service are taking the opportunity to look at restructuring the system before they hire replacements for open positions, Ali said.

“We’re taking a look at the entire system and efficiencies from a statewide perspective,” Ali said.

He stressed, however, that the service will be maintained for the benefit of the citizens.

“One of our primary values is that local Extension service,” he said. “What we are looking to articulate or translate now is how can we maintain that value and the history of the local Extension service.”

Ali said more than 1,100 individuals throughout the state have provided their input on what services they need from their Extension service.

“The hope is that cooperative Extension will be more streamlined to focus on specific issues that arose during those conversations,” Ali said. “All of that will affect staffing patterns. At this point, it’s a wait and see.”