Arkansas Forestry Commission to layoff 36 workers in January

The Arkansas Forestry Commission is laying off 36 workers in January to make up for a $4 million shortfall in its budget because of declining timber sales, the agency overseeing fire protection and conservation in the state's forests said Monday.

State Forester John Shannon said the employees were informed on Friday that they would be laid off effective Jan. 13. The 298-person state agency oversees conservation and fire suppression in the state's forests.

Shannon said the agency had tried to close its budget gap by keeping positions vacant and by cutting down on its operations and management budget, but said it wasn't enough.

"Despite those efforts, I cannot close the budget gap without a reduction in force," Shannon said. "We cannot have a government in Arkansas that we cannot pay for and we cannot have more forestry commission than we can afford."

Shannon said the commission's Little Rock headquarters was hardest hit by the layoffs, with eight administrative employees let go. Other layoffs were scattered in offices around the state.

The shortfall in the agency's $20 million budget stems from a drop in revenue from timber sales. Shannon said state and federal funds had been stable, but the agency had seen a sharp drop in timber severance tax collections.

The state's timber industry has been hit by the housing market's woes. Georgia-Pacific in September announced that it would indefinitely suspend its plywood and stud manufacturing operation in Crossett, affecting 700 employees.

Shannon said he doesn't anticipate any more layoffs and said the agency will ask for more help from its partners, particularly volunteer fire departments, during the wildfire season.

Shannon said he also expected to ask the Legislature for help when it convenes in February for its fiscal session, but did not know how much it would ask for.

Gov. Mike Beebe has listed the commission as an agency that may need money from the state's surplus to get it through the rest of the fiscal year, which began July 1. The state has about $71 million in surplus money available.

Arkansas agencies have avoided the major layoffs and cutbacks that other states have suffered, and Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said the commission's situation was unique because of its reliance on timber sales. DeCample said he didn't know of any other agencies facing potential layoffs. DeCample said the governor is still considering requesting surplus money to help the commission.

"Will we continue looking at other potential changes in the future for forestry? Absolutely," DeCample said "They felt like this was a step they had to take to live within their means."

Source: CBS News