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Fulton County may gain Forestry firefighter

Friday, February 17, 2012

Area fire departments hope Fulton County will get at least one new firefighter, as the state rehires 15 Forestry Commission firefighters laid off in January.
Fulton County will likely get at least one firefighter position restored, thanks to a state plan to hire 15 Forestry Commission firefighters to recover from January layoffs.

In January, the Forestry Commission laid off 34 employees because of budget problems. It owed the federal government at least $1.2 million after improperly spending some grant money, and did not have adequate funding to meet future payrolls without layoffs.

Last month, members of the Joint Budget Committee's Forestry Subcommittee expressed concern that 14 of the layoffs were firefighters, who responded to grass and forest fires.

"Can we handle what we might face (in fires) with the force we have in place?" Senator Missy Irvin asked State Forester John Shannon.

Shannon responded that "getting firefighters back on the ground" was his top priority.

Shannon said, however, he had found enough funds, through budget cuts, to hire only four firefighters.

Shannon said a five cent an acre increase in the forest protection tax, paid by landowners, would raise revenue to restore 21 positions. Lawmakers were skeptical there would be enough support or time to raise the tax in the fiscal year session which began Monday, Feb. 13.

On Wednesday, Feb. 8, Governor Mike Beebe announced that he would take $550,000 from the state Department of Agriculture's budget, and use the funds to hire 15 Forestry Commission Firefighters. According to the governor, the Agriculture Department regularly returns unused funds to the state at the end of the fiscal year, and he was tapping them early to rehire laid off firefighters.

A Forester at the Forestry Commission office in Salem lost his job in the January layoffs, and the office already had a vacant Ranger position that had not been filled.

Local Representative Lori Benedict said, since Fulton County has two employee vacancies, it should be one of the counties who obtain an employee through the governor's actions. Benedict added that Fulton County is listed as one of 13 critical need counties, because of the high number wildfires it experiences.

On Feb. 8, Benedict joined Representative Donna Hutchison in filing a bill that would require the governor to fund the restoration of 15 firefighter positions by taking $570,000 from General Improvement Funds under his discretion.

Shortly after announcing she was co-sponsor of the bill, Benedict was informed of the Governor's action to obtain funds through the Agriculture Department.

The Governor said he made the decision after talking to Democratic leaders in the General Assembly.

"I am sorry to say he credits Democrats with giving him the idea (to fund firefighter positions), although you can see the bill clearly was filed by myself and Rep. Donna Hutchison," Benedict, a Republican, said in an e-mail.

Benedict's comments may be a sign that the governor may continue to face Republican questions about the Forestry Commission's budget deficit.

While rehiring firefighters will ease concerns about the agency's firefighting abilities, the legislature still must approve a $2.7 million dollar appropriation to repay the federal government for the improperly spent grant money, and to help the Forestry Commission get through the rest of the fiscal year.

The Governor's action to rehire firefighters did not save Shannon's job.

Shannon resigned on Friday, Feb. 10, after a legislative audit questioned his failure to cut spending as budget problems grew, and whether he continued to allow federal grant money to be spent on salaries, when he knew that was not an acceptable use of the federal funds.

Beebe praised Shannon's 18 years as State Forester, but said, after reviewing the audit, "I agree that a change in management is needed."

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