Columbia County's payout for forestry services more than doubled this year because of a state mandate.
On Tuesday, though, county commissioners voluntarily restored a 5-percent budget cut to the Grovetown office of the Georgia Forestry Commission.
The state's Wildfire Protection Assessment increased from 4 cents per acre to 10 cents per acre for each Georgia county. It was the first increase for that assessment in more than 40 years.
In Columbia County, that meant a fee increase from $3,865 last year to $9,661 this year.
Despite the increase, commissioners Ron Cross, Ron Thigpen and Scott Dean voted to return $761 to the local forestry commission that previously had been cut from its budget.
Asking for the budget restoration isn't as callous as it might seem, county Chief Ranger Steve Abbott said.
The additional money generated by the increased assessment fee goes to the general fund of the Georgia Forestry Commission, not directly to the county office, Abbott said.
"It is allocated to buy new equipment to improve our technology and communications," he said. "It'll benefit the whole state."
The ranger said his office might see indirect benefits from the increase in the form of new equipment, but there are no guarantees that all the money supplied by the county will return to the county.
Thigpen called the budget restoration too small an amount to make a difference to the county's overall budget.
However, Commissioner Trey Allen said it also is too small an amount to negatively affect the forestry commission and would set a bad precedent for other departments also suffering budget cuts. He and Commissioner Charles Allen voted against the restoration.
Abbott disagrees with Trey Allen's assessment. He said the restoration will make a big difference for his office.
"I have the smallest budget in the county ... and somebody cut my budget quite a bit," Abbott said. "I only get $500 for operations and $600 for uniforms. It went down to $200 apiece. I can't even buy a pair of fire pants for $200."
Abbott said he also receives funding from the county for a part-time secretary and subscriptions to The Columbia County News-Times and a magazine.
In documents, county officials chided Abbott for waiting so long to speak out against the cut since the budget process started months ago.
"I didn't get a chance to defend myself," Abbott explained. "When the budget cuts were going on, I was at the (Gulf Coast) oil spill.
"I came back now because I wanted to put in my two cents. I wanted zero growth, but I didn't want to lose anything."
Abbott said the restored funding will be used to buy new tires for a four-wheeler and firefighting gear.
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