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Funding Limbo May End County's Cornell Cooperative

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- Andrea Kisch, along with about 150 master gardeners at the Westchester chapter of the Cornell Cooperative Extension , has been considering all of the “devastating” effects that will ensue if the agency doesn’t receive disputed funding from the county government, which is causing contention between the county executive and legislature.

“There may be pockets of all these things being done, but we are a unique organization in that we do it all and everything disseminates the latest knowledge from Cornell,” said Kisch, an Irvington resident who has been gardening at the Hart's Brook preserve since projects there began 12 years ago. “The children’s programs help kids learn about nutrition and the science classes as part of their curriculum get to come down here.”

Over a ton of fresh produce from the Hart's Brook preserve gets donated to the soup kitchen at the Grace Church Community Center in White Plains, which cook Maggie Serrano says is “very helpful.”

“We use it for a hot side dish or for salads,” said Serrano, a Port Chester resident. “When they bring us a lot we put it out for people to take. When we don’t get the vegetables people ask about it.”

County Executive Robert Astorino is withholding $990,000 in funding for the cooperative until his office sees more documentation of how the governmental agency spends money. Astorino, a Republican, took out the funding after the board of legislators , which has a Democratic majority, included the $990,000 in the 2011 budget. The legislators then restored the funding, prompting Astorino to veto it. Legislators overrode his veto and are now urging that the money gets awarded to the cooperative as soon as possible.

However, the executive director of the Westchester chapter, Barbara Sacks, says the cooperative can’t wait much longer. Sacks said the cooperative is set up as a governmental agency by New York State, which means that it cannot legally receive money from the state, federal government, or Cornell University without getting county funding first.

“We’re already in arrears," Sacks said. "We’re borrowing the money to stay afloat. The county owes us $990,000 so it’s not going to much longer if they delay it. We’ll close our doors.

About 150 master gardeners volunteered 9,000 hours last year to help run the cooperative’s gardens, family plots, booths at local farmer’s markets, and home visits. Westchester may also lose its 4-H youth programs, and nutritional, gardening, and horticultural courses if the cooperative closes.

The cooperative has been a critical resource for local businesses such as Almstead Tree & Shrub Care Co. whose employees have been able to get state-required training and continuing education credits through the agency.

“If it shut, we’d be sending samples to labs in other states and paying fees for shipping and so forth. Who knows what the turnaround would be on that. Employees would have to pay for their travel time to other states for training,” said Ken Almstead, who sits on the cooperative's board of directors. “There would be a large void there and with state universities in budget cuts and so forth I really don’t see anyone on the horizon filling the void.”

The county executive’s office said Astorino seeks more budget-related documents to ensure that funding is being spent in an appropriate manner. Astorino said he hopes to resolve the funding dispute in an Aug. 3 meeting with the cooperative.

However, both county legislators and the cooperative insist that it has sent sufficient records to the county. The chair of the county’s energy and environment committee, Michael Kaplowitz (D - Somers), said Astorino has been using budget documents as an “artificial roadblock” to granting the funding.

“Cornell, for 96 years, has been a good neighbor and a partner in government. We believe that relationship should and will continue,” said Kaplowitz. “It’s time for the county executive’s office to stop putting up artificial roadblocks and make an agreement with Cornell so we can get the money flowing and allow them to do their job.”

Have you ever taken a course through the Cornell Cooperative Extension, visited its gardens, or gotten advice from its staff? How important do you think the cooperative is? What do you think of Astorino's original stance that other agencies and organizations do similar work and that funding the cooperative is just another budgetary burden? Email thoughts to strangle@thedailywhiteplains.com and we'll include your responses in future coverage.

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