County officials in the Nursery Capital have been working to replace area nursery specialist Mark Halcomb after his position was eliminated due to cuts in the UT Extension Service budget, and now it looks as if Tennessee State University may step forward and fund a replacement.
However, the university has asked the five counties that will be served by the specialist to provide a portion of the funding, something four of the counties involved have declined to do since Halcomb will be working full time until he retires in 2012, and part time in 2013 after his retirement.
TSU Nursery Research Center director Nick Gawel met with the county’s Economic Development/ Agriculture Committee to discuss TSU’s plans. During the meeting committee chairman Les Trotman asked Gawel if he had talked to TSU administration.
“Yes, and TSU is going to put someone here,” Gawel said. “One of the reasons I’m here tonight and you are meeting here is that they have requested some sort of support from the county for that position.”
Gawel quelled the rumors TSU would be adding agents in the area to replace UT Extension Service personnel laid off in the cutbacks, particularly Michael Barry, who worked with the 4-H program.
“The only thing in our extension area that’s being added is the nursery specialist position,” Gawel said, noting the current area nursery specialist would still be around for some time.
“Mark Halcomb he’s officially retiring, but he will be on board full time until June of 2012,” Gawel said. “And then half-time for another year. That’s considered an ideal situation, and would allow the dovetailing of the two positions with the new person that we’d be hiring. They’d be located here, so we’d be able to have those two persons to work together and have the new specialist take over where Mark leaves off.”
Trotman questioned Gawel about the level of funding needed locally.
“The number they’ve looking at, with salary and benefits, is around $60,000,” Gawel said. “My dean very optimistically asked me to try to find 50 percent of that amongst the four or five counties in the area. If we could look at 10 percent of that salary coming from Warren County that would be a good show of faith and support for the industry, for the center and for TSU’s commitment here.”
The counties being served include Warren, DeKalb, Cannon, Grundy and Franklin.
Unfortunately, County Executive John Pelham reported on a meeting where all five county executives, Lonnie Cleek of Grundy County, Mike Foster of DeKalb County, David Pennington of Cannon County and Richard Stewart of Franklin County, were present. At that meeting the group discussed the issue with Tim L. Cross, dean of the UT Institute of Agriculture.
Cross later sent the group a letter explaining the current plans for Halcomb and noting UT would be unable to fund the nursery specialist pasts 2013 unless the budget situation improves.
“After this meeting, in conversation and an e-mail I had received from Nick,” Pelham said. “I shared with the other four county mayors what is going to be asked of us from TSU at that time. We were going to be asked to collectively contribute 50 percent of that salary. Now it was not said in that e-mail that if we didn’t make that contribution that they wouldn’t go ahead with the position.”
But Pelham went on to explain the other county executives said they weren’t interested in funding even a portion of the salary after being informed Halcomb would most likely remain on the job for another two years.
“They said times were just too tough for them do it right now,” Pelham said, noting they might be willing to help once Halcomb has left the position.
The committee asked Gawel to go back to the TSU administration and try to work out a solution, then report back to the county.