Forestry worker laid off after 45 years of service

Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Judie Robinson spoke to members of the media at a press conference recently.

EUREKA SPRINGS -- Judie Robinson was a little ticked off when she was laid off from her job with the Arkansas Forestry Commission after 45 years.

Robinson, who was twice named "Employee of the Year," was among 36 state workers who no longer have jobs after a serious budget shortfall was revealed recently -- a shortfall that has been blamed on a loss in timber tax revenue because of the housing slump.

She loved her job and was disappointed to lose it, she said, but what really added insult to injury was when her termination papers arrived in the mail marked "postage due."

It arrived certified, she remembers, short $2.88 in postage that had to be paid.

Robinson said she began her career as a "Local Office Administrative Specialist" (secretary) with the Arkansas Forestry Commission in 1967 working out of an office on Armstrong Street in Eureka Springs. After 27 years she was moved to the Fayetteville office. She took a brief retirement, hired back on at Fayetteville, and was moved to the Lake Leatherwood office before unexpectedly ending her long career at the Onyx Cave Road office, known as the Carroll County Work Center.

When explaining her three years of retirement, Robinson said, "I had 30 years in and I tried retirement, but I was lost. The position re-opened and I took it. I loved my work and those I worked with were family."

Robinson said she was disappointed that it was a forester in a neighboring district who was instructed to give her the termination news -- not someone from her own district.

"On Dec. 3, Ray Wakefield called me," she recalled. "He's the district forester in District 6. He said state forester John Shannon told him to call me to say I was laid off."

State Rep. Bryan King, who met with Robinson recently at a news conference in Eureka Springs, said he takes issue with Shannon on several levels.

"I object to the way they treated her termination," said King. "They should have made a reasonable effort for a face-to-face notification, if he were man enough."

King also objects to Shannon's handling of the commission, its finances and its personnel policies, saying Shannon should have notified state lawmakers of the budget shortfall, that he tried to pass the buck in the blame game, he muzzled his employees, and he misused funds.

King was referring to a $4 million budget shortfall that Shannon and other forestry executives reportedly kept quiet about until too late, the use of forest management funds to pay salaries, and not letting legislators know what was going on so they could act.

"Shannon had two responsibilities," said King, "report to the governor and report to the legislature. We should have known. The legislature did not get an opportunity to address the situation. Legislators depended on him and he had the opportunity to let us know."

King claims Shannon had plenty of opportunity to let the governor and state legislators know about the forestry commission's financial troubles. At last week's news conference, King passed out copies of several emails Shannon sent out. The first, dated Jan. 5, 2009, asks how much the commission could save if a hiring freeze was initiated. Another, dated April 9, 2010, asks if they could get through fiscal year 2010 without furloughs, referring to income shortfalls. Shannon, in the email, goes on to say they needed a new method of funding operations, saying he didn't think the severance tax would ever return to previous levels.

King is calling for Shannon's resignation, along with two other executives, assistant state forester Don McBride and deputy state forester Larry Nance.

"None of the executives are taking any cuts," said King. "They are protecting themselves and they are the ones who are partially responsible. They need to be the ones to go. They have mismanaged and kept things under wraps. It's the people in the field who are suffering."

Shannon says he did know there were financial problems because of the loss of timber revenue, both in timber sales from the 22,000-acre Poison Spring State Park near Camden and in timber severance tax collections that are paid by primary timber processors, such as sawmills. With the downturn in the economy and a stalled housing industry, the demand for timber fell.

"I did not know until mid-November how bad our budget was," he said.

Shannon disputes King's claim that he muzzles his employees, saying he respects them, but when talking policy at the capitol level, he is the spokesman for the commission. "We don't have extraneous employees speak for us," Shannon said.

He confirmed that the Arkansas Forestry Commission owes the federal government som­e $1.2 million because it "borrowed" money from the Southern Pine Beetle grant program to "make payroll," and Gov. Mike Beebe is looking into a supplemental appropriation to repay that debt.

He noted that all of the Southern Pine Beetle work has been completed and paid for.

Shannon also confirmed there is a state legislative audit under way and that "grant process review people" from the U.S. Forest Service were in town looking into the situation.

"They want to make sure federal grants continue to flow to us," he said, "and they are laying out the processes to follow."

Shannon said there have been talks at the state level to restore 20 positions, mostly firefighters, but no one knows where that money will come from. Raising the forest fire protection tax by 5 cents an acre was proposed but no lawmakers have stepped up to sponsor legislation that would bring it to a vote.

Robinson, who lives in the Inspiration Point area, said she would like to work again, that she misses her former co-workers; county ranger Darrell Bohannan, forest rangers Freddie Wolfinbarger and Billy Ball, plus forester Scott Noble, who covered both Benton and Carroll counties before he was laid off.

"I would love to work again, but Eureka Springs is limited in secretarial positions," she said. "I loved my work with forestry and those I worked with. It was my life."

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