UPDATE State Forestry Commission to lay off 36 workers

UPDATE State Forestry Commission to lay off 36 workers

05 December 2011

published by http://arkansasnews.com  

USA — LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Forestry Commission has told 36 employees they will be laid off on January 13 because of dwindling funds.

Director John Shannon said today the 298-person agency is facing a $4 million shortfall in its $20 million budget because of a downturn in the timber industry.

The commission receives revenue from the state timber severance tax, which Shannon estimated is about $800,000 below last year’s tax revenue, and from the sale of timber from Poison Springs State Park, which he said is about $1.2 million below last year’s sales revenue.

Another revenue source, seedling sales, is about $400,000 below where it was before the economic downturn, Shannon said. He was not immediately able to recall what other factors brought the shortfall to $4 million but said that for an agency with a relatively small budget, “those types of things, they all make a big difference.”

Federal grants and state funding from general revenue have remained steady, Shannon said.

The commission gave the employees the news on Friday. Gov. Mike Beebe’s office has agreed to provide temporary loan assistance so the workers can keep their jobs through the holidays.

Eight of the employees being laid off work in administrative positions in Little Rock. The rest are scattered across the state.

Shannon said the commission will do everything it can to help the laid-off workers find new jobs.

“Nobody’s happy about this. We are all heartbroken,” he said.

In the past, Beebe has often noted that the state has survived the economic downturn without having to lay off state employees. Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said Monday that the Forestry Commission is “a unique case” because its funding is directly tied to the timber industry.

“It’s something we wish didn’t have to happen to anyone over there, but with the significant drop in revenue over there, some tough choices had to be made,” DeCample said.

The Forestry Commission is charged with protecting and preserving the state’s forests, which includes fighting forest fires. Since 1935, the commission has suppressed 225,000 wildfires.

Shannon said he did everything he could to avoid cuts, including significantly cutting the maintenance and operations budget, eliminating part-time positions and eliminating 29 vacant positions, but a shortfall remained, triggering the state’s reduction-in-force policy.

He said he began the cuts with positions that were not critical to the commission’s core mission, but some critical positions also had to be cut.
He said the commission will do the best it can with the force it will have left, and will rely more than ever on the help of volunteer fire departments, but the layoffs will result in reduced services.

“There will be less protection from forest fires,” he said.

The timber industry has been struggling as a result of a national slump in new home construction. Georgia-Pacific announced in September it would stop production at its plywood mill in Crossett, putting 700 people out of work.

“The industry is cyclical,” Shannon said. “There are down times, and those down times generally have lasted six months or at worst maybe a year and a half. So I think very reasonable people expected the housing industry, the forest products industry, to have rebounded by now, but it has not.”

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