Forest budget brings green to county
Logging proceeds bring extra revenue into county
At a time when other county forests in the state are seeing sales go without qualified bidders, Taylor County has had competition for all of its recent timber sales and is setting revenue records.
At last week’s Taylor County forestry committee meeting, forest administrator Jake Walcisak offered feedback from people in the logging community about why that is so.
At the top is that the county maintains a very good road network in the county forest allowing crews to access areas without having to spend time and money making the roads passable for equipment. Another highlight was that Taylor County has a reputation for having quality sales that are well established eliminating guess work for the loggers. Added to this is that the county sets clear expectations on the loggers and holds poor quality contractors accountable for not meeting requirements. At the same time, he said the county has a reputation for having flexible staff and forestry committee when unforeseen circumstances arise.
Walcisak also noted that the county is also helped by its location and proximity to markets for wood products without over reliance on just one buyer. The county also carries on average 20 active sales on its books in any given year meaning that loggers have flexibility when conditions and markets are right to complete a project. “This isn’t something that is long term sustainable,” Walcisak said, cautioning that the number of active sales is going down.
Like other forest owners, the county is also keeping an eye on the market and the potential of a change in ownership of Verso, which runs several mills in the state as well as with the new ownership of the Park Falls mill and if it will potentially reopen or will be scrapped. “If they can make a profit, they will flip it,” Walcisak said of the company that purchased the closed mill.
The feedback on why loggers choose to bid on Taylor County projects was tied into the discussion on the county forest budget as well as on a discussion about a grading bill from the highway department.
The forestry department is unique among county departments in that it routinely turns a profit for the county putting more money into county coffers than it takes to manage the forest. According to Walcisak, about $51,000 in levy dollars go to the operation of the county forest however, the forest revenues projected to be returned to the county next year are about $300,000 based on the 10-year rolling average of logging in the forest. Of that amount, the 2022 departmental budget calls for $164,145 to be used to offset the cost to run the department.
For every tree cut in the forest, the bulk of revenue goes to the county operations with a portion of the revenue going to the town in which the forest is located and a portion goes into a land acquisition fund for future purchase of county forest land if it becomes available.
Walcisak said that by the end of the year the land acquisition fund will be at its cap of $500,000 and the money will go back to general county coffers. All of these funds are part of the county reserve accounts and are regularly tapped during the budget process to balance budget areas.
As in past years, the county’s finance committee had directed departments to prepare zero increase budgets for operational expenses. Forestry had no problems meeting and exceeding that requirement for its overall budget this year. A handful of smaller line items were tweaked to offset rising costs in other areas, but the biggest savings for the forestry budget was in shifting half the wages and benefits expense for the support staff position from forestry to zoning. Instead of paying for a percentage of the shared position, earlier this year it was changed to have the zoning department carrying the cost of the position and bill the forestry department for the actual time used.
Committee members approved the department budget showing projected expenses of $433,804, a drop of $25,567 from the current year, which works out to be a 5.57% decrease.
In reviewing the department’s monthly bills, Walcisak alerted committee members to a jump in the grading expense for county forest roads. Rather than hiring an outside contractor, the forestry department routinely contracts with the highway department to help with road grading and maintenance of the forest roads.
Walcisak said the challenge this time was that a different operator did the grading work and the cost was double what it normally is for the same amount of miles graded. He told committee members that he had talked with highway commissioner Ben Stanfley over the increase in cost. “I didn’t get much traction in reducing the bill,” he said.
Walcisak said that he didn’t want to create a rift between the departments, noting they have always worked well together, but that he did not like seeing a bill that was double the previous 10 times the work was done.
“No two grader operators grade alike,” Walcisak said, noting it was the difference between the normal operator and a new one that was assigned to do the work. Walcisak said it just took the operator twice as long to end up with the same quality of work for the job. He said this may impact the number of times the county grades the forest roads without exceeding the budget line item for it. Typically, the department budgets for grading four times a year.
Committee members expressed support for keeping the same level of grading noting the feedback from the loggers about the quality of roads.
“I think we need to pay it,” said committee chairman Chuck Zenner noting that in the future he would like the forestry department to be more proactive in working with the highway department to get the cost back to the normal level.
In other business, committee members:
_ Received an update that the truck bids were sent out and would be back for the next meeting to decide on purchasing one.
_ Discussed the state dam grant applications for Chelsea Lake Dam and Camp 8 Dam with committee members adamant that they wanted the engineers at Ayres Associates to turn application materials in early rather than waiting to the last minute and potentially missing something. “I’ve been to that dance once and it wasn’t that much fun,” said committee member Mike Bub of the need to get the grant applications in early.
_ Discussed the state of the Mondeaux Lodge project being done by the USDA Forest Service. The county has been fielding numerous complaints about the project and the beach and recreation area not being maintained this year. Committee member Gene Knoll asked that they bring someone from the forest service to the next meeting to update the project. “A project that should have taken six months is taking six years,” Knoll said.