LITTLE ROCK — Members of a legislative panel studying the state Forestry Commission's budget expressed support Monday for restoring firefighter positions that the agency recently eliminated.
LITTLE ROCK — Members of a legislative panel studying the state Forestry Commission’s budget expressed support Monday for restoring firefighter positions that the agency recently eliminated.
On Jan. 13 the commission laid off 34 people, 14 of them firefighters, because of a $4 million shortfall in its budget.
Director John Shannon initially said he would lay off 36 people, but on Monday agency officials told the forestry subcommittee of the legislative Joint Budget Committee that the number was reduced to 34 because two other employees voluntarily retired.
Members of the subcommittee said they were worried about the impact of the layoffs on the agency’s ability to fight forest fires. The layoffs left the agency with 264 employees, 180 of them firefighters.
“Many communities within my district experienced wildfires last year, and we’re concerned,” said Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff.
Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, also commented after the hearing.
“In my opinion the reduction in force really disabled our fire protection ability in the state of Arkansas,” Irvin said.
Gov. Mike Beebe had said he will request a supplemental appropriation of about $2.7 million to get the agency through the end of the current fiscal year and allow it to repay improperly spent federal funds, but he has not requested funding for the restoration of any positions in the agency’s budget for the next fiscal year.
The subcommittee plans to make a recommendation to the Joint Budget Committee on Jan. 31 regarding the Forestry Commission’s budget. Members asked Shannon to come back before them on Thursday with a proposal for restoring some of the eliminated positions.
Shannon told the panel that although it is not part of Beebe’s proposed budget for 2012-13, he would like to see 14 or 15 firefighter positions added.
“You can do that with a nickel increase in the forest fire protection tax,” he said. “I like the idea, speaking for myself and not the administration at all.”
The tax, currently 15 cents per acre, is added to the property taxes that private owners of forest land pay. It raises a little over $2 million a year currently; a 5-cent increase would raise that total by about $700,000.
Shannon told reporters he believes landowners would support raising the tax because they want strong fire protection.
The Legislature will convene for a fiscal session on Feb. 13. Non-budget bills require a two-thirds vote of both chambers to be considered during a fiscal session. Shannon and state finance officials have said the Forestry Commission’s $4 million shortfall occurred because the agency reacted to declining revenue from the state timber severance tax and timber sales by improperly using federal grant money for ongoing expenses. The agency also was counting the federal money twice, which inflated the amount of funding it appeared to have available.
The issue has prompted investigations by state auditors and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Some subcommittee members said they wanted more information about how the error occurred, when Shannon knew about it and how similar problems would be avoided in the future.
As he has in the past, Shannon blamed the error on his former chief financial officer. He said he learned of the error on Nov. 17. Rep. Donna Hutchinson, R-Bella Vista, asked Shannon about an internal email dated June 17 in which he said, “I need to understand the $3.5 million shortfall.”
Shannon said he knew at the time that the agency had a revenue shortage but did not know about the misuse of federal grant money.
“Here’s how that’s not going to happen ever again,” he said. “Those documents are going to be heavily peer-reviewed before I sign them or (other officials sign them). By peer-reviewed, that means the people who are responsible for managing those federal grants will have to work together, total them up, initial the document or sign the document and perhaps attach the backup documentation before there’s a signature by the director — me — or the secretary or the deputy.”
“So you’re going to do your job?” said Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe.
Reporters asked Shannon if he has considered resigning. He said he has not, but he understands that “people have legitimate complaints about the way the Forestry Commission has handled federal grants.”
Shannon serves at the pleasure of the governor. When asked last week about Shannon’s future at the agency, Beebe said he is waiting on the results of the state and federal investigations and that “all of those things will be taken into consideration.”