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September 19, 2019

8/17/2019 7:30:00 AM
Taxpayer costs climb in forestry director case
County approves LTE to fill in; Bilogan suspended but paid

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

Taxpayer costs have begun to add up while the Oneida County forestry director has spent the past three months on the sidelines under paid suspension and as the county approved this month a limited term employee (LTE) to fill in until there is a resolution of the director's situation.

Specifically, that situation is the Oneida County sheriff's department's recommendation that forestry director John Bilogan be charged with felony misconduct in office for allegedly using county equipment and McNaughton inmates to perform brushing on a portion of county forestland, which was being made into a town road leading to property Bilogan had recently purchased.

According to the sheriff's department's report, Bilogan was personally responsible for all costs incurred for the construction of the road because it was not a county project.

However, though Bilogan has been on paid suspension for more than three months, and despite the sheriff's department's referral to the district attorney more than two months ago, as of Friday morning, August 16, he had yet to be charged with any crime.

Oneida County officials confirmed to The Times on May 10 that Bilogan had been placed on paid leave; the sheriff's department issued a probable cause statement on June 4, and the case was referred to the district attorney on June 5.

The Oneida County district attorney subsequently recused himself from a charging decision and referred the case to the Lincoln County district attorney's office, where the matter has remained.

Meanwhile costs are climbing. Bilogan's annual salary, of which he has been paid at least 25 percent while suspended, is $80,287 a year. That does not include fringes such as social security and other employer paid benefits, according to Oneida County finance director Darcy Smith.

In addition, three county committees have signed off on spending up to $10,022 to hire a limited-term employee to help the department during the fall's timber marking.

County human resources director Lisa Charbarneau made that pitch to the county's administration committee on Aug. 5. The committee approved the request, and the labor relations and forestry committees subsequently did as well.

"Basically what is being requested is an LTE forester to come in and assist the department in marking for their timber sales due to the current staff shortage," Charbarneau told the administration committee.

There was no funding in the forestry budget for the position, Charbarneau said.

Supervisor Robb Jensen wondered if there was any opportunity to work with the state forestry department and possibly contract with them for expanded assistance. Corporation counsel Brian Desmond said he didn't know, but he did point out that the county already gets assistance from the state in setting up timber sales.

Supervisor Billy Fried wondered if the LTE could be paid with the forestry department's vacancy dollars - the money the county saves when a budgeted position sits vacant for a period of time - but Charbarneau pointed out that there were no vacancy dollars because Bilogan has been paid while on leave.

Fried also wondered if another forestry line-item could be used, but finance director Darcy Smith said stumpage revenues are down for the year and the forestry budget would be tight.

"If there were vacancy dollars my answer would be yes," Smith said. "But knowing what forestry revenues are this year, you are not going to have any excess in that budget."

Charbarneau did indicate that some grant funds were possibly available to fund the position, but that answer would not be known until late October. The forestry committee has approved submitting an application for a sustainable forestry grant.

Jensen said he was sure the forestry staff would prioritize projects and perhaps could put some things on the back burner to help get the most out of available human resources.

"When we look at departmental goals between now and Dec. 31, (perhaps) there are some things that foresters will be doing that could be delayed and put this as a high priority and maximize their time on this," he said. "I don't know. I'm not a forester."

Supervisor Bob Mott, who sits on both the administration and forestry committees, assured the supervisors the need was real and the task essential for the county's timber harvesting.

"Obviously this is one of those things that has to be done for our stumpage revenue, and we are short right now," Mott said. "Why (we are short) is the unspoken elephant in the room, but I'm sure they wouldn't ask if it wasn't needed."

In addition to the staff shortage, Charbarneau said a recent damaging storm had put extra pressure on the county's foresters.

"Foresters have been called to go into and take care of those affected areas," she said.

Supervisors approved the motion to spend up to $10,022 on the LTE forester. The money, if no grant dollars become available, would be spent from the county's contingency fund.

The case

According to sheriff's department investigatory reports, on April 15 Bilogan allegedly accompanied a crew of 10 inmates and a wood chipper to a job site to brush a portion of county forest where a town road was being built to the Bilogan property.

Bilogan also allegedly utilized another employee of the forestry department, and county equipment, the report stated.

According to the report, Bilogan was personally responsible for all costs incurred for the construction of the road because it was not a county project.

The terms by which Bilogan obtained the property in the first place also came under investigators' scrutiny.

Previous owners Frank Stape and Bill Strom told investigators they had inquired with Bilogan about getting an easement to their property because they wanted to develop the property and build cottages.

"Frank and Bill said Bilogan advised that would never happen as the property was surrounded by county forestland and never be zoned to be developed," the report states. "Frank said Frank and Lynda [Stape] decided to sell their 1/3 ownership in the land, as they were convinced by Bilogan the land was not worth much."

Investigators were told that another one-third partner sold his share to Bilogan, leaving Strom, who reportedly did not want to sell.

"Frank said Bilogan advised [that] Bilogan would get Victoria's (Strom's) portion of the land through eminent domain," the report states.

Strom's husband Bill told investigators they did not want to sell their portion of the land.

"Bill said after Lynda and Thomas sold their portions, Bilogan threatened to make things rough on Bill and Victoria if they did not sell to Bilogan," the report states.

Because they did not want a legal hassle, they sold their land to Bilogan, the report states.

Stape and Strom said they were upset when they discovered Bilogan had obtained rights to a town road to the property.

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