Soil and water conservation district, Extension learn that state funds being released

Under the bright sunshine on a warm spring afternoon, Vandalia sixth-graders ventured out of the classroom to learn about Vandalia Lake, water quality, soils and other conservation issues. A week ago, the agency that organized Vandalia Lake Appreciation Day were thinking that Mondays event would be the last of its type.

Thats because Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich had failed to release funds that had been appropriated for all soil and water conservation districts, including the one in Fayette County. Also faced with planning budget cuts was University of Illinois Extension, which includes the Fayette County Extension Office.

But late Wednesday, Blagojevich announced that he was cutting those funds loose.

It sounds like a done deal, Tony Pals, resource conservationist for the Fayette County Soil & Water Conservation District.

Pals said the local district office received from the Illinois Department of Agriculture the contract thats required to provide the state funds to the SWCD. That contract was signed and sent back to Springfield.

Last month, Pals said the district was hoping to operate through the end of this year with the funds that it had.

They were just about putting us on hold, he said on Wednesday. We would have lasted until maybe December.

The district had already initiated one cost-cutting measure making its newsletter available online instead of through the mail.

That was one of the reasons we started a Web site, so we could put the newsletter online and save some postage costs, Pals said. As it made the switch, the district asked members if they would prefer to get the newsletter online.

But we didnt get much response, he said.

The release of state funds, Pals said, means the district can return to the practice of mailing out printed newsletters, to ensure that it is reaching all of its members.

With the threat of funding cuts, the district was looking at scaling back its operations significantly. One of the biggest cuts being planned, Pals said, was in the area of education.

We would have canceled the conservation field days and a lot of presentations that weve been making in the schools, he said. Simply, all of our education programs would have been gone.

Karen Sanders, the districts administrative coordinator, said that facet of the districts operations is an important one.

At the conservation field days like the one we held today, Sanders said on Wednesday, we get the opportunity to bring in a lot of experts to teach children about a variety of conservation issues.

The teachers dont have time to cover these types of things, and we can provide that education using people who are educated and experienced. The importance of that is immeasurable.

If we are unable to do these kinds of things, there isnt anybody who is going to do it, Sanders said.

Meanwhile, Extension officials learned on Tuesday that the process of getting state monies to Extension units has begun.

Its good news, but were still not sure whats going to happen in FY 09, she said. Budget hearings for the 2009 fiscal year were to be held on Wednesday in Springfield.

Even though the state funds are being released, Extension officials arent counting their chickens, Boas said.

Were still being cautious with our budget process, she said.

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