DNR 2003 Proposed Budget Cuts Painful For Sportsmen

Other cuts, plus retirements, leading to a loss of service in the field.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. | August 26, 2003

DNR Commissioner Lonice Barrett summed up the budget situation on August 19 when he told the DNR Board that meeting the latest ordered budget cuts had been like deciding “which one of your kids do you want to shoot?”

With Georgiaʼs state-revenue outlook growing more dismal, Gov. Sonny Perdueʼs office issued orders to agencies in August — propose a 2.5 percent cut to the current, Fiscal Year 2004 operating budget, and 5 percent for FY 2005, which begins next July. The proposals are due on the governorʼs desk September 8. The 2.5 percent cuts could be enacted immediately. The 5 percent cut will be reviewed by the legislature this winter.

At the DNR Board meeting, Barrett unveiled the proposed cuts that he would send to the governor. If accepted in total, the cuts would take a $2.5 million bite out of WRD, which has an annual operating budget of around $35 million. Hereʼs a look at a few of the hits WRD will likely take:

  • Abolish six conservation ranger job positions immediately, and 11 more for the FY 2005 budget year (a savings of $799,624). WRD will meet these cuts from currently vacant jobs. All DNR agencies have been trying to hold vacant jobs open in order to absorb these cuts, which they saw coming. Thus, the loss of law-enforcement protection of wildlife and service to sportsmen that comes from not having a full force of rangers is already happening now. These cuts make that loss permanent by removing any possibility of hiring someone. If all 17 positions are cut, the in-the-field ranger force would be reduced from 218 to 201.
  • Close 21,200-acre Little Satilla WMA in Wayne and Pierce counties and close 3,800-acre Rogers Tract WMA, also in Wayne County (a total savings of $104,035). WRD said these two WMAs were chosen because they are leased rather than owned by the state, they get lower use than other WMAs in the area, and they are in a region served by several other nearby WMAs, including Rayonier, Paulks Pasture, Sansavilla, and Griffin Ridge. This is a FY ʼ04 cut, but the leases for this year have been paid. If this cut is accepted, both WMAs will remain open to hunting for this season. The leases would not be renewed in 2004.

Rogers Tract is one of only two WMAs in Georgia where running deer with dogs is allowed (two 2-day hunts are held). The other is Rayonier WMA, just a couple of miles down the road from Rogers Tract.

  • Reduce the Bobwhite Quail Initiative from 17 to 15 counties in the program, dropping Houston and Treutlen, which were the two counties with the smallest number of participating landowners in the program. Also, one of nine biologists who work with landowners in the BQI program would be cut. However, an additional cut in the FY 2005 budget will wean BQI off of state-budget funds completely, a plan that relies on the legislature to commit BQI license-plate funds to fill the hole. If the legislature does not do so in the coming session, that would leave BQI with one biologist to administer the entire program. Landowners would no longer have a biologist come to their land to write a management plan for their property.
  • Eliminate assistance to pond owners (a savings of $271,250). Four job positions in Fisheries would be eliminated in a program that provides management advice to pond owners. No more on-site inspections or management help for free. Pond owners would have to get this service for a fee from private contractors.

Other positions and programs in WRD are also affected, to the tune of 40 total job positions that could be eliminated in the entire 7.5 percent cut. This would take WRD from a force of 566 job positions to 526. However, on August 12, WRD had 59 job vacancies agency-wide. A few of these positions of high priority are being filled, but WRD hopes to be able to make the proposed cuts, if they are accepted, without actually firing anyone. Through moving personnel from cut positions into other vacancies, this could be accomplished.

Thereʼs another storm cloud over WRD headquarters. According to employment records, there are 47 people in Fisheries, Game Management and Law Enforcement who are eligible to retire, or have already retired, in 2003. This group includes three region supervisors in Game Management, two in Law Enforcement and one in Fisheries. Also, five WRD biologists are included and nine rangers, mostly captains, corporals and sergeants. WRD Director David Waller is among this group hired in the early 1970s. He retires this month.

The effect of these retirements is a mass exit of WRDʼs most experienced people, producing a shift within the agency that leaves job vacancies at the level where field work gets done. For example, Noel Holcomb has been promoted to replace David Waller. Dan Forster, assistant chief of WRD Game Management, has been promoted to fill Holcombʼs former position. In all likelihood, a Game Management region supervisor or senior biologist will be moved into Forsterʼs former job. Then, a biologist will likely fill that personʼs empty seat, ultimately leaving another biologist position empty. Just as the vacant ranger positions represent a hole in WRD customer service in the field, so will vacant field-work positions created both by retirements and held-open vacancies. Although WRD will shift people into high-need positions, they will likely continue to float job vacancies where they can, because the state revenue situation is not expected to improve any time soon.

Meanwhile, the work load of vacant positions will be dumped on remaining rangers, biologists and technicians, who are already doing the work of other vacant positions as well as their own. To top it all off, they must get the job done in aging, worn vehicles. In a normal budget year, WRD replaces more than 60 vehicles in its fleet. Due to budget constraints, that number hasnʼt been met in several years, and not a single new vehicle has been purchased in the last two years.

As always, GON reminds you that WRD is taking these budgets cuts at roughly the same level as other DNR agencies — despite the fact that more than half of the WRD budget, the money for services you receive, is offset by your license fees.

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