Bills proposed to bolster firefighting and restoration
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Officials at the Oregon Department of Forestry say just seven months into the state’s two-year budget cycle they’ve spent most of the money lawmakers approved for the entire biennium and now need an emergency cash infusion.
The Oregonian/OregonLive reports that agency officials say they need between $52 million to $132 million – otherwise they’ll have exhausted their budget by March.
The request comes as lawmakers and the governor are looking to expand the agency even further. They’re sponsoring bills that would bolster the agency’s firefighting capabilities and forest restoration work – above and beyond the immediate budget requests.
In the near term, agency leaders are looking for a minimum of $52 million and as much as $132 million, money they say is needed to keep keep regular programs running; to pay a consultant hired to help them get their financial house in order; and to cover firefighting costs in the upcoming 2020 fire season.
The wide range of the request reflects the variability of the agency’s firefighting costs. The bare minimum is a forecast of $20 million for 2020, with a high end $92 million. Fire costs have exceeded that in the past, however, and have averaged $70 million annually since 2013.
“This is new ground for us,” said Joy Krawczyk, a spokeswoman for the agency. “We haven’t put in a request like this in the past, especially in a short session, so we haven’t really heard how that’s going to move.”
Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, and co-chair of Way and Means, said the committee had yet to discuss the agency’s budget requests in any meaningful way.
“We’re just reacting to the plethora of requests coming in,” she said. “There are certain things we’re going to have to do for forestry or else it’s going to go broke…We’re going to have to do it quickly.”
The agency’s problems come as no surprise. They are partly due to delays in invoicing and collecting reimbursements for firefighting costs, primarily from the federal government. The agency currently has $103 million in outstanding receivables, $17 million of which date back to 2015. Of the $103 million, the agency still needs to invoice more than half.
To plug its resulting cash flow problem, agency leaders have looked for help on a variety of fronts. They borrowed money from Treasury, had the Department of Administrative Services cover its payroll, and tapped internal reserves that mostly belong to the agency’s state forest program.
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