CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Before a room packed with state Division of Forestry workers, nearly a third of its workforce learned Tuesday that they’ll be unemployed by the middle of next month.
The State Personnel Board voted to layoff 37 workers at its meeting, after hearing public comment from many DoF employees, state Sen. Ron Miller (D-Greenbrier), and State Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette.
“This is not a good situation, but I have to operate the department within the money which the state appropriates to me,” Burdette said. “They’ve shorted me about 35 percent in the Division of Forestry.”
Burdette insisted several times in speaking to the crowd that he wished he didn’t have to make the layoffs, and that he warned the House Finance Committee that cuts were imminent.
“It all revolved around the timber severance tax, and if there is one and who gets it,” he explained. “The governor’s position was that that tax should be reassigned to the Division of Forestry to make up for the losses in general revenue. The legislature decided it was more important to cut the tax than fully fund the Division of Forestry.”
The Tomblin administration and lawmakers have been involved in finger pointing over the layoff plan after the new state budget cut funding for the Division of Forestry by $1.3 million.
Some leading lawmakers have claimed that no one spoke with them directly about the number of possible layoffs in connection with the funding cut, which Burdette previously said was dishonest. Either way, many forestry workers agreed the cuts would severely limit the department.
“As a volunteer firefighter myself, we depend on forestry for training and for equipment,” said Craig Elswick, who will be laid off. “Now there’s not going to be enough firefighters to train and equip the fire departments. They’re going to have to do it on their own.”
Miller pointed out the layoffs are particularly cruel considering many of the DoF workers had been working hard in responding to last week’s flooding.
“Many of them had been called out to cut trees in streams, they were in the streams and stream banks cutting things loose; tremendous job,” he said. “People all over the community made comment (that) they knew they were losing their jobs.”
Chris White, who is in charge of Region 2 of the Division of Forestry which covers much of southern West Virginia, said the cuts would decimate his unit.
“My region that I’m over will have 10 men left to cover a 16 county area, and eight of those are real hot fire areas.”
Board member Jeff Woods was the sole ‘no’ vote on the layoffs, saying that he wasn’t convinced that the move was necessary.
“I just didn’t feel like they gave me sufficient information to be able to say that the manner in which they proceeded was the best way possible,” Woods said.
The layoffs to the current workforce of 120 will take effect July 15.