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Funding woes kill Fresno lab, haunt DVM program

June 26, 2009
By: Jennifer Fiala
For The VIN News Service


The California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory System’s Fresno site will shut its doors in less than a month in a move that reflects the state’s dire economic straits and the fiscally battered University of California education system. 

The lab, managed by the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) and its veterinary medical school since 1987, provided diagnostic services for diseases in livestock, poultry and horses to veterinarians and producers for 59 years. 

Reduced state funding combined with rising management costs did the lab in, officials say. The laboratory network, which includes branches in Fresno, Turlock, Tulare and San Bernardino, gets 80 percent of its support from the California Department of Agriculture, with the remaining revenue coming from service fees paid by producers and veterinarians. 

Rising costs and a reduced state contract compounded by the recession have left the system with a budget deficit estimated at more than $2 million for fiscal year 2009-2010. Roughly 20 employees will be affected by the Fresno facility’s closure.

The lab is the latest victim of an economic crisis that’s instigated a series of cutbacks affecting veterinary medicine in California, including some severe belt-tightening on order for the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

According to widespread reports, the UC system is facing the worst financial crisis in its history, a microcosm of a state budget that’s a staggering $24.5 billion in the hole and a government that’s quickly running out of cash. To stave off what could be a “cataclysmic” shutdown of the state’s services, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing for deep cuts in health and welfare programs, prisons, state parks and education. 

The predicament is not unique to California. Governments nationwide are wrestling with the deepest recession since the Great Depression, and virtually all U.S. veterinary medical programs are feeling the pinch. But UC Davis, and by extension its veterinary medical program, sit in the line of fire as politicians attempt to tame the nation’s largest state budget deficit. At press time, University of California officials reportedly are considering salary reductions and furloughs to plug an unprecedented $800-million budget hole for the 2009-2010 academic year. 

“We are informed of a huge budget cut coming down,” says Dr. Bennie Osburn, dean of UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine. “We’re probably taking an additional $3 million hit. We haven’t figured this one out yet.” 

He adds that in his 13 years as dean, “I’ve never seen anything like this." 

That’s dismal news, considering the school recently slashed 110 positions through attrition and layoffs, eliminated support for graduate programs and pared down a variety of other state-supported programs to meet cuts running in the neighborhood of $7 million to $8 million last year. In a June 17 letter to employees, UC President Mark Yudof relays that student fee increases totaling $211 million will account for a quarter of the current budget deficit. 

Tuition for the veterinary medical program already has been raised to $24,500 a year. “That will go up,” Osburn promises. “I don’t know what the regents will come up with, but they were talking about a 10-percent increase.” 

The remainder of the university’s projected cuts will fall to the campuses and likely will affect course availability, class size, student service and other aspects of the educational program. “Campuses have already begun eliminating positions, imposing severe restrictions on faculty hiring and eliminated or modifying programs,” Yudof says. 

Just how that will impact the UC Davis veterinary medical program remains to be seen, but insiders are not predicting good news. In an interview earlier this year with the VIN News Service, Osburn explained that when a school relies on $41 million in state funds to run its teaching hospital and programs, much of that coming from an ailing real-estate industry, cutbacks are inevitable. 

“In this day and age, with the way budgets are going for veterinary colleges, we’re going to have to find more corporate partners or we won’t survive.” 

Osburn says that in the wake of news that he’s accepted a board appointment with Banfield, The Pet Hospital. It's a position that carries some controversy, considering critics view it as a conflict of interest being that, as dean, Osburn heads the largest state-funded veterinary medical program in California. Osburn counters that he’s merely acting as a neutral stakeholder advising the private organization in what's best for veterinary medicine.

Moreover, Gov. Schwarzenegger has proposed the privatization of all state-supported professional schools, which reportedly would save $25 million in general fund dollars allocated to UC professional schools alone, he says.

“The Legislature would have to get involved (to approve that),” Osburn says. “But I can tell you, California is broke.” 

With that, the Fresno lab is not the university’s only casualty to date. Recently, officials axed the UC Davis Liver Transplant Program. Osburn reports that the veterinary school’s residency program has been downsized and the graduate program is next. 

“To figure out how we’ll meet these challenges in a very short period of time is really scary. There are opportunities, but they’re not coming from the state of California,” Osburn says. 




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