Belen — Rural neighbors have always turned out to help in time of crisis. Members of Valencia County’s rural community stepped forward Saturday and raised $13,000 to help keep the county’s Cooperative Extension Service operating.

The New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau sponsored a benefit auction at the Valencia County Fairgrounds that proved to be a bigger success than organizers expected.

“It’s heartwarming to see the turnout for this,” Angelo Baca, president of the Valencia County Farm Bureau chapter, said of the approximately 200 people who attended. “I think it demonstrates that people still want the extension service and its programs to exist.

“The turnout was good. We had 75 bidders for the live auction and 100 items donated for the silent auction,” said Joel Alderete, regional director of the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau.

Old farm equipment, furniture, hay, goats, cattle and even horses were for sale.

Auctioneer Max Coffey, with the help of spotter Richard Hererra, enticed the money from the bidders with rapid-fire calling and jokes. Good natured kidding kept the audience entertained as bidders pushed one another to go up a couple more dollars.

“Come on, guys, it’s for the 4-H. I want to be sure that what I donated brought some money,” said Joann VanDerGeest as she prodded the bidders to pay more for an antique manure spreader she had donated.

Before the day was over, VanDerGeest found herself the proud owner of a mother goat and her kid. “I don’t really need two goats, but it was fun bidding, and the money is going to a good cause,” she said.

Farmer C.J. Sanchez donated 100 bales of hay that generated three rounds of bidding for a total of $1,600 as two bidders donated the hay back for further rounds.

“You guys are working me,” Coffey said after the second round of bidding on the hay. “But I think everyone is having fun.”

Several cows and six roosters were also bought then donated back for a second bidding battle.

Among the bidders was Steve Pierce, who is a member of the New Mexico 4-H Foundation. Pierce donated items for the silent auction and was in on the bidding for the hay.

“When I heard about the problems Valencia County is having and the fact that this auction was being held, I decided to help out,” he said of his coming from Roswell for the event. “I came up here to show my support.”

“When you see funding cuts happening, it is a concern. Four-H invests in kids who are going to become the cornerstone of our society. It’s the most positive way we can invest in our future.”

With the ever-shrinking government dollars, Pierce said, taxpayers are going to have to evaluate where those dollars are being spent.

“We as taxpayers are going to have to assess how we value the different aspects of our society,” he said. “Do we want to wait and spend our tax dollars on jails, or do we want to invest in positive programs like 4-H? Not one out of 1,000 4-H’ers will be incarcerated.”

Various groups in Valencia County are working to save the cooperative extension service, after the county commission announced it will not be able to pay its portion of the funding for the program because of budgetary problems.

“The structure for financing the extension service is fair,” said Pierce, who is a Republican candidate for the District 3 congressional seat. “It is fair because it is shared by the federal, state and local governments. There are no other counties in the state, to my knowledge, cutting their program funding.”

Valencia County’s state legislators negotiated with New Mexico State University for funds to keep the extension service open until June 30. An agreement has been made and is in place.

“These funds are not contingent on the governor signing the budget,” Sen. Michael Sanchez said on Monday. “NMSU wants to do it for the community and kids. There are funds in the budget on the governor’s desk to pay back these funds, but if they are vetoed, they will be paid back at some point and time through the state budget.”

Another area in which the county’s legislators are negotiating is for the municipalities within Valencia County to share the local costs for the program.

“We (Sanchez, Rep. Fred Luna and Rep. Kandy Cordova) sent letters to the mayors asking them to work together. I have heard back that they have discussed it and are working on it,” Sanchez said.

“Since people living in each of the municipalities are benefiting from the extension service’s programs, it seems only fair that the municipalities along with the county pay for the local portion of the services budget.”

Sanchez added that other revenue sources are being sought to support the program. “It would be nice for these programs not to have to rely on government entities. We are pursuing a way to set up a fund that will stay available and not be contingent on the county’s budget.”

Baca said the funds raised at the auction will be placed in a special bank account at the Bank of Belen for further donations. The account is the Farm Bureau 4-H account.

“This brings us up to about $20,000,” said Frank Holgiun, program director for the Valencia County Cooperative Extension Service. “This is a nice start on next year’s budget. That covers the first quarter of fiscal year ’02-03.”

The local portion of the extension service’s operational cost is $64,426, plus additional funds for office space rental.

“I’m very pleased with the outcome of the auction,” Holguin said. “There is a lot of community effort out there to keep the extension service here in the county.”

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Jane Moorman