“It’s all about the money” Officials defend DNR budget cuts

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DNR officials Bruce Trautman, center, and Chuck Gipp, right, talk with one of more than 150 people who turned out for a recent meeting on the department’s budget cut decisions.

By Pam Reinig

Register Editor

More than 150 people packed the Edgewood Events Center last Monday night to hear from two DNR officials responsible for recent unpopular budget cuts.

DNR Director Chuck Gipp and Deputy Director Bruce Trautman fielded tough questions about their decision to meet a $1.2 million budget shortfall by dissolving the forestry department  and eliminating key positions, including the state forester’s job held by Paul Tauke. The group also raised questions about the transparency of the decision-making process. Many wondered why stakeholders had no input.

“It’s all about money,” Gipp said. “We don’t have the dollars we once did. We were able to save the state nursery and the district foresters by eliminating positions. It was a tough call but it’s what we had to do.”

“We thought long and hard about this,” Trautman added. “What I know about forestry I learned from Paul Tauke. One of the hardest days of my life was looking him in the eye and telling him we were making these changes.”

Neither Gipp nor Trautman addressed the question of transparency to the group’s satisfaction other than to say that personnel matters couldn’t be discussed with the public. When pressed about specific budget cuts to meet the shortfall, Trautman mentioned that seven other positions were eliminated, 80 open positions were on hold, the number of part-time workers has been reduced by 50 percent, and the department’s magazine has been cut from five issues per year to three. A partnership with AmeriCorp, which is a federal program that encourages volunteerism, was also cut.

Gary Beyer, a district forester for more than 30 years who is now a forest consultant, countered several of Gipp and Trautman’s arguments. He expressed confidence in Tauke’s ability to find other ways to save money, if he’d been alerted to the terminations.

“Paul presented a budget for FY18 that was in the black,” Beyer said. “The morning he was fired he was going to work on $3 million in grants. From 2010-2017, the forestry budget was cut by $1 million but Paul still managed to keep everyone working. Now you take a $1 million hit for the whole DNR and you have to cut jobs? That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Iowa is now the only state in the U.S. without a designated forestry department. Beyer and others are concerned that that will greatly impact Iowa’s ability to compete on federal grants.

“We compete for grants with 20 other ‘big timber’ states, and the last seven years we’ve out-competed them,” Beyer said. “Have you thought about the impact this will have on that?”

Trautman addressed Beyer’s concern by saying that the department would do its best to compete, even though he wasn’t certain how the grant-awarding process would be impacted.

Sharon Ramsey of Trees Forever drew applause when she suggested that the word “forestry” should be incorporated into the overall title of the department. “We’re the only state without that designation and that will hurt us for years to come,” she said.

When cuts were announced by the DNR, the department issued a statement that the changes wouldn’t impact service levels. Gipp backed away from that claim, noting that it “gives the idea that those positions weren’t necessary.”

“Yes, it’s going to cause a reduction in services,” he added. “Things will be slower.”

One of the most telling comments was made at the end of the evening by former state representative Roger Thomas of Elkader. “Right now, I don’t think there’s any Iowa legislator who cares about forestry,” he said, adding that residents need to put pressure on elected officials to give the DNR sufficient funds in the future.”

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