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Noxious weed, WSU budgets get thorny

There's a good chance there will be more weeds in Island County next year, but fewer dollars with which to eradicate them.

A proposed 10 percent budget cut to the county's noxious weed program coupled with a possible 28 percent drop in funding for the county's Washington State University Extension service could give weeds like purple loostrife, Canada thistle, hogweed and tansy ragwort more room and opportunity to grow next year.

While this may not be a big deal to the average homeowner, Judy Feldman, the county's noxious weed board coordinator, knows that less money means she has less time to tell landowners which weeds they need to kill.

That could set up a snowball effect in Feldman's world of weeds, an effect that promises nothing but problems for the county's farmers, gardeners, native plants and wildlife, and anyone unlucky enough to run into real nasties like giant hogweed.

"We've already had several people go to the hospital because of giant hogweed," said Feldman this week of the poisonous, noxious weed. "I think the public needs to know what happens when (the island county commissioners) cut the budget."

This is not a complaint leveled at the county's elected officials, however. Feldman and WSU Extension agent Don Meehan said they understand the county commissioners have to trim the budget. The hit the extension service is taking will cut about $50,000 out of the $178,000 allocation it received from the county this year, which translates into the loss of the services of a full-time receptionist and one part-time faculty member.

Those cuts, Meehan said, will hurt programs like the noxious weed board, which operates through the extension office, and 4-H.

Categorizing both as "prevention programs," Meehan noted that these are the sorts of public programs that get hit by budget cuts first. While he said he cannot blame the commissioners for taking the steps they have, he said the county needs to find more revenue in the future if it hopes to arrest the "death spiral" its finances have begun.

If the cuts proposed by the commissioners stand and are approved in December, the concrete impact on the noxious weed program will show on the enforcement side. Feldman said her 20-hour-per-week job will be cut back, and her expense budget will drop from its present $3,800. At the same time, she will have to spend more time in the office and less in the field to keep up with the paperwork and publications her program generates.

Currently, Feldman spends as much time as she can spotting noxious weed infestations and advising landowners how to eliminate them. Landowners with noxious weeds are required by county statute to remove them.

The noxious weed board and the extension service will know by late August exactly how much they must trim from the budgets. Until then, the public may still comment on the cuts in writing or in person to the Island County Board of Commissioners.

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