Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 8, Issue 2 - December, 2015


Funding Restructuring between County and Extension—Sectors of Staff Concern

McMoran, D. W., Agriculture And Natural Resources Extension Educator-Director, Washington State University
Diane Smith, Family Consumer Sciences and Food Access Specialist, Washington State University
Kate Seymour, Education Staff, Washington State University
Doug Stienbarger, Community and Economic Development Faculty, Washington State University


The Smith-Lever Act dictated the funding justification for Extension offices, employing federal, state and local assets. It did not, however, mandate the structure of the financial collaborative agreements. Historically, the typical funding structure between county governments and Extension has been through Memorandum of Agreements (MOA). Recently, three counties in Washington State have transitioned from MOA to Contract Vendor relationships, allowing counties to alleviate liability exposure while continuing to fund Extension. Anticipating a growing trend in county/Extension restructuring, staff of transitioned Extension offices were surveyed; the major sectors of concern have been identified and best practices during transition have been derived.  


The Smith-Lever Act dictated the funding justification for Extension offices, employing federal, state and local assets. It did not, however, mandate the structure of the financial collaborative agreements. Historically, the typical funding structure between county governments and Extension has been through Memorandum of Agreements (MOA). Recently, three counties in Washington State have transitioned from MOA to Contract Vendor relationships, allowing counties to alleviate liability exposure while continuing to fund Extension. Anticipating a growing trend in county/Extension restructuring, staff of transitioned Extension offices were surveyed; the major sectors of concern have been identified and best practices during transition have been derived. 


The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 set into place the funding justification for Extension offices, employing federal, state and local assets (Smith-Lever Act, 1914). Local assets, i.e. county governments, have traditionally provided pivotal funding and collaborative assets for Extension through Memorandums of Agreement (MOA). Using MOAs as the standard model of funding and administrative structure, Extension is a department of county government, which provides county office space and equipment, and contributes to staff and faculty salaries (Clark, 1969).

Washington State University Extension has experienced both funding and staffing hurdles due to an array of legislative and economic influences. Through Legislative Bulletins, Washington counties have spending and revenue restrictions that threaten funding for non-mandated programs like WSU Extension (Lindstrom, 2007). Fallquest and Morris (as cited in Lindstrom, 2007) found that even prior to the recent economic recession, Washington counties have held a steadfast pattern of cutting services and funding to programs such as Extension. During the recent recession, WSU Extension faced a 20% budget reduction, eliminating over 50 Extension jobs statewide (Bernardo, 2009). Following this fiscal trend, three counties in Washington State have restructured the nature of county/Extension agreements from MOAs to Contract Vendor relationships as a way to limit liability exposure and its associated costs.

Although Contract Vendor relationships continue funding for Extension programs, they adversely affect the collaboration between Extension and counties if Extension is no longer a department of county governments. They also eliminate direct funding for faculty, end asset sharing and increase the potential for duplication of program delivery. Acknowledging the pattern of county governments to reduce funding support for Extension and the precedence of three counties moving to Contract Vendor relationships, it is anticipated that more counties will move forward in this pattern of funding restructuring.

Restructuring the typical Extension model is not a new practice, with many Extension offices throughout the United States having undergone regionalization or county clustering. Clustered county agents have increased specialization and scope of program delivery and forced collaboration with multiple county agencies and other Extension agents (Hutchins, 1992). Studies have found that Extension agents have mixed opinions on effectiveness of regionalization (Schmidtt & Bartholomay, 2009; Rockwell, Furgason, Jacobson, Schmidt & Tooker, 1993; Tondl, 1991.) The Contract Vendor structure is markedly different from regionalization in that it undermines collaboration between Extension agents and county agencies.

Extension staff of the three counties who have transitioned from MOAs to Contract Vendor relationships were surveyed with the aim of identifying staff reaction to the process and concerns relating to ramifications of the transition on program delivery. Findings highlight major sectors of staff concern and provide guidance on how to preemptively address these concerns during transitions.


Data was gathered through a Survey Monkey survey (an online questionnaire and survey program). Each survey question allowed the participant to respond on a five-point “Likert” scale or select “Not Applicable”. Each question allowed the participant to add comments, and there was an additional field at the end of the survey for general comments and feedback.

Extension staff members of the three transitioned counties were asked to participate. A link to the survey was sent to each county director who then passed it along to Extension staff. Participants were given a window of seven days to complete the survey. Two of the three Extension offices had already completed the transition while the third office was in the midst of transitioning.


Of the 36 staff members asked to participate in the study, 33 (91%) responded. Due to the relatively small sample size, the following response fields were collapsed in pursuit of more meaningful data: “Strongly Disagree” and “Disagree” were collapsed into a single field and “Strongly Agree” and “Agree” were collapsed into a single field. 

Sixty-three percent of staff respondents agreed that they had concerns over how their work might be impacted (Q2), as well as concerns over impact on program delivery (Q3). It is notable that while 63% of respondents expressed these concerns, 62% of staff agreed that they were kept up-to-date on the progress of the contractual funding restructuring (Table 1).









Survey Question





Sample Size


I was concerned about how my work might be impacted by the change in funding.







I was concerned about how my program delivery might be impacted by the change in funding.







I was kept current throughout the process on the progress to change in funding from county to contract agreement.







The frequency of updates on the process was adequate.







The length of time between the first announcement of the change to completion of the process was enough time for me to adjust to the new agreement.







I was engaged in the planning process and decisions that would impact my work as a result of the contractual agreement.







I am confident the change to a contractual agreement will be beneficial to my work here at WSU Extension.







Table 1. Survey Questions and Compressed Responses


Respondent comments to the survey questions provide insights into staff concerns expressed in Q2 and Q3. Major concerns include: changes in employment status, future of county funding, and future of collaboration between Extension and county government.

Changes in Employment Status

Understandably, with some respondents transitioning from county employment to university employment, there was concern expressed over having to reapply for their positions, as well as concerns about differences in job requirements, benefits, hours, and compensation. Conversely, an Extension County Director indicated that having all staff under one Human Resources department would be a benefit of the transition.

“I spent a great deal of my time as director rehiring my county staff and making them university staff.”

Future of County Funding

The multi-year trend of budget cuts for Extension offices coupled with transitioning from MOAs to Contract Vendor relationships left many participants expressing concerns over the future of county funding for Extension programs.

“I am concerned by how my program delivery is impacted by the unclear guidelines related to what is funded and what isn't.” 

“There is concern that the county will further drop our funding.”

“What will it take to maintain the current funding level from the county? Will slow, steady cuts erode our ability to maintain quality programs?”

“[…] I am very concerned about the future. Now that we are on the ‘outside’ it will be much easier for the county to cut us in the future.”

Future of Collaboration Between Extension and County

Under Contract Vendor relationships, Extension offices are no longer a department within county government. Respondent comments from the survey revealed major concern about loss of collaboration between Extension and county.

“This is not a direction I would recommend for county offices to go voluntarily. However, if forced, I think it can work, although it will take more effort to maintain the relationship.”

“[…] new agreement will become just business and not a real partnership.”

“Anytime a cooperative relationship is changed, I am concerned because you don't want one or both sides to become less invested or less aware of the partnership.”

“[…] in changing to a more contractual relationship, the concept of the partnership involved may fade.”


Although 62% of respondents agreed to having been kept current on the progress of contractual restructuring, 63% still expressed concern over the future of work impact and program delivery. Comments suggest that Extension offices transitioning from MOAs to Contract Vendor agreements should focus progress updates on the three sectors of concern listed above: changes in employment status, future of county funding and the future of collaboration between Extension and county.

Changes in Employment Status

County staff forced to apply to WSU to maintain employment expressed concerns around changes in benefits and duties. The fact that these positions are required to be publicly posted and openly recruited for increased the uncertainty of staff members currently holding those positions. In times of restructuring and flux, the risk of losing staff due to uncertainty not only costs Extension financially with replacement hire and training costs, but also in loss of institutional knowledge and established collaborative relationships (Merhar, 2013). The University Human Resources department could ease these concerns by creating a preemptive navigable pathway for staff transition, highlighting any differences in benefit packages and workplace expectations.

Under Contract Vendor agreements all office personnel become WSU employees. In order to address these initial concerns about staff transitions, directors should address the benefits of a single employer office. Staff share the same workplace behavior expectations and access to benefits. Specifically, this has a long-term beneficial impact on workload expectations from Extension directors and administrative staff.

Future of County Funding

The most common concern articulated in the comments section of this study involves the uncertain future of the funding relationship between county and Extension. To address this, staff should be advised of the current funding structure and each Extension office’s financial plan for the future. For example, if an Extension office plans to diversify its funding sources through increased grant applications or nonprofit partnerships, this should be presented to staff along with potential impacts for each program.

Future of Collaboration Between Extension and County

While staff expressed concern over how the loss of county resources (e.g., access to transportation vehicles, IT services, etc.) will strain Extension program delivery, greater concern was expressed over the loss of partnerships between county and Extension. Although the Extension offices in this study continued the quarterly deliverables presentations mandated under both MOA and Contract Vendor agreements, fears of program duplication, missed networking opportunities and lack of county investment in Extension programmatic pursuits still remain. During the negotiation process, avenues for continued collaboration should be prioritized while drafting the Contract Vendor agreement.

Conclusions drawn from a 2007 study of the relationship between county commissioners’ knowledge of Extension programs and their willingness to continue funding, indicate that lack of knowledge of Extension program delivery might negatively affect the future of county-based funding (Lindstrom, 2007). Furthermore, a study of county commissioners in Washington State found that commissioners had a general ambivalence around Extension programming and its relevance to the needs of the county (Stienbarger, 2005). This research highlights the need for Extension to actively pursue collaboration and partnership with county governments after transitioning to Contract Vendor relationships.


The burden of contract negotiations for Contract Vendor agreements and the future success of that transition rests heavily on County Extension directors. As more offices transition, the bank of resources available (contract templates, year-end reviews, etc.) will increase, creating a databank of best practices. As a way to preemptively address staff concerns identified in this study, the burden of success again falls to County Extension directors.

County Extension directors should exercise transparency and specificity about contractual changes with frequent staff updates. Upon notification of intention to move from MOAs to Contract Vendor relationships, County Extension directors should collaborate with the University Human Resources department to create smooth conversion processes for staff moving from county to university employment.

The future of county funding will likely remain a serious concern for any Extension office transitioning to a Contract Vendor relationship. This behooves County Extension directors to develop plans for long-term funding, be it continued support from county governments or diversification through grant funding and nonprofit partnerships. Local Extension staff should be involved in this planning process to ensure the plan’s overall success while also reducing staff concerns over future of funding.

Addressing the third concern of county/Extension partnerships, County Extension directors should work with county and office staff to identify avenues for continued collaboration with county government. This will reduce likelihood of program duplication while keeping county officials up-to-date and engaged with Extension programs and outreach efforts. As mentioned above, this may increase willingness for county government to continue or increase funding allocations.

The strength of Extension’s program delivery relies on the efforts of Extension staff who are the agents of community engagement and program areas. It is crucial to support these agents during times of funding restructuring. Fears and concerns over an uncertain funding future potentially reduce morale and can increase staff turnover. County Extension directors and host universities can assuage these concerns through transparency, staff engagement in long-term planning efforts and planned continued collaboration with county government. 

           Literature Cited

Bernardo, D. (2009). Budget reduction information. Retrieved from

Clark, R. C. (1969). Principles of county administration. Journal of Extension [Online], 7(3). Available at:

Hutchins, G. K. (1992). Evaluating county clustering. Journal of Extension [On-line], 30(1), Article 1FEA5. Available at:

Lindstrom, J. (2007). The relationship among Washington State county commissioner’s knowledge and perception of Washington State University Extension and their willingness to fund WSU Extension (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 3290979)

Merhar, C. (2013). Employee retention: the real cost of losing an employee. Retrieved from

Rockwell, S. K., Furgason, J., Jacobson, C., Schmidt, D., & Tooker, L. (1993). From single to multicounty programming units. Journal of Extension [On-line], 31(3) Article 3FEA4. Available at:

Schmitt, M. A., & Bartholomay, T. (2009). Organizational restructuring and its effect on agricultural Extension educator satisfaction and effectiveness. Journal of Extension [On-line], 47(2) Article 2RIB1. Available at:

Smith-Lever Act. (1914). Retrieved from

Stienbarger, D. M. (2005). The view from county partners: Extension in southwest Washington. Journal of Extension [On-line], 43(2) Article 2FEA1. Available at:

Tondl, R. M. (1991). Climate for change in Extension. Journal of Extension [On-line], 29(3) Article 3FEA4. Available at: