Byline: BRANDON LARRABEE
ATLANTA - As firefighters battle the largest outbreak of wildfires in Georgia history, which have now burned into Florida, the state agency charged with monitoring and containing the fires is dealing with budget cuts that have claimed more than 200 positions in little more than 15 years.
According to a joint release from the agencies fighting the flames, there are 22 wildfires burning on about 300,380 acres.
And while state spending for the Georgia Forestry Commission has grown in recent years, federal funding has not, and a 2003 analysis by Georgia State University suggests that inflation and the growth in the state's population has far outstripped the agency's funding increase.
"They need more positions, there's no doubt about that," said Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, who leads the House subcommittee that oversees the commission's budget.
Since 1991, the Forestry Commission has shed 207 jobs, according to spokeswoman Sharon Dolliver, dropping to 686 employees today from 893 positions 16 years ago. The majority of those jobs, she said, are likely forest rangers.
The most recent cuts came in the troubled budget in the early part of this decade, when lagging state revenues forced across-the-board reductions to keep spending in check.
Spending for rangers and equipment was cut, and many of the state's remaining fire towers, part of an early warning system, were shuttered in favor of other early-warning systems, like airplane surveillance.
A 2003 independent analysis also shows the commission is chronically underfunded. In fact, the agency's budget at the time was almost 43 percent short of what the commission should have received to keep up with its 1991 budget, according to the study, "Twelve Years of Budget Growth: Where Has the Money Gone?"
For the study, researchers at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University factored inflation and the state's population growth between 1991 and 2003 to create a "baseline budget."
In 2003, the study found, the Georgia Forestry Commission's baseline budget should have been almost $61.7 million, not the $35.5 million it received.
It was part of a trend, researchers found, of anemic spending at the Department of Natural Resources, Department of Agriculture and the commission.
"Funding for these areas has become less of a priority over the past 12 years," according to the study, authored by Alan Essig.
At $39.7 million, the commission's budget for the spending year ending June 30 is about 36 percent lower than what the Georgia State study said would be necessary four years ago.
Under the budget that passed in the General Assembly this year, the Forestry Commission is set to get nearly $42.8 million in the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1. Gov. Sonny Perdue has not announced whether he will sign or veto the measure. …