After being cut almost $6 million in two years, the state Forestry Commission will eliminate about 75 jobs by the end of June, agency officials announced Thursday.
The Mississippi State Personnel Board approved the commission’s plan to reorganize and eliminate up to 118 positions during their monthly board meeting Thursday morning, but commission officials said 75 would lose jobs by the end of June.
Of those employees who will lose jobs, about 50 are wildland firefighters who typically fight and prevent forest fires and help Mississippians manage public and private forests.
The 75 jobs cuts reflect about 22 percent of the commission’s 345 employees. Some, not all, of the employees who will lose their jobs had been informed as of Thursday afternoon.
“Everyone at the Forestry Commission works very hard to ensure the public stays safe, and what we’re having to do today is just very sad,” said Assistant State Forester Russell Bozeman.
The commission maintains the state’s forest land, manages wildfires, issues controlled burns and burns permits, among other services.
Bozeman said that the loss of 50 firefighters should not greatly affect the agency’s ability to fight forest fires, citing multi-state and federal partnerships in place in case of a busy wildfire season. The Forestry Commission fights about 35,000 acres of wildfire annually, he said.
On Thursday morning, Ryan Beard, director of Human Capital Core Processes for the Personnell Board, presented the board with a “reduction-in-force plan,” necessary because of a $2.6 million budget cut between fiscal year 2017 and 2018.
The fiscal year 2018 cut comes after a $3.2 million cut last fiscal year. Bozeman said the agency was able to use one-time moneys this current fiscal year to compensate for the cut last year.
“We tried to minimize the number of staff we cut this current fiscal year because we sure were not anticipating another large cut this year,” Bozeman said.
Legislative leaders point out that the agency is comparing the agency’s appropriation for Fiscal Year 2018 to the full Fiscal Year 2017 appropriation. Four budget cuts were enacted during this fiscal year, trimming $813,102 from the agency’s.
Comparing the Fiscal Year 2018 appropriation of $15.4 million to the actual agency funds for Fiscal Year 2017 projects a cut of $380,000, or 2.4 percent, according to documents provided to legislators before they voted on appropriations bills.
Under the reorganization plan, the commission will consolidate its seven operating districts into four regions. Six district offices and 37 county offices will close as well, Beard said.
“Our goal is to provide the services that we’ve always provided, but time will tell,” State Forester Charlie Morgan said. “This is pretty significant cuts in personnel.”
Everyone affected has the opportunity to apply for remaining jobs within the commission, and those positions will be filled with the most eligible candidates, he said.
“Starting July 1st, we will only have approximately 75 less pins,” Bozeman told Mississippi Today. “Everything that got touched, whether it’s a guy that’s currently reporting in this location is now maybe reporting in the one next door, well that guy got affected by the rif (reduction in force).”
Both Morgan and Bozeman said the decision on which positions to include in the reorganization were determined using data to highlight the commission’s priorities.
“Our main focus was we want to keep as many boots on the ground as we can,” Morgan said.
“The decision to reorganize our districts was not made lightly. We are deeply saddened to lose these faithful employees and appreciate their years of service to the state of Mississippi,” he said in a release.
Morgan told the board these are “challenging times, but in spite of the challenge we face the Mississippi Forestry Commission is committed to maintaining our core mission, and that’s to protect the state’s 19.8 million acres of forest land.”