DNR Budget 2003: Georgia Sportsmen See Decline In Services
The price of your Georgia hunting and fishing license is not shrinking. What is shrinking are the services you receive in exchange.
The people who bring you the services you pay for when you buy a hunting license or fishing license are feeling the pinch of budget tightening. The services they offer to you are being stretched, thinned, even eliminated in some cases, and budget circumstances are likely to worsen.
Georgia is facing a budget crisis, and we are not alone. State revenues across the country have fallen significantly. Even before Gov. Perdue took office, state agencies including the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had been asked to identify a total of 5 percent of the money they are currently operating with that can be saved (about $5 million for DNR). Now, Gov. Perdue has asked DNR to identify an additional $3 million in this year’s programs that he can have on hand to cut if he needs to. He also asked for $3 million in potential cuts to be identified for the next year’s budget, which has already been scanned for other potential cuts.
Unlike most other state agencies, DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) is largely “self-sufficient” in that the majority of the money the state places in WRD’s budget is replaced by what the state collects from you in the form of hunting and fishing license fees and federal money from federal taxes you paid on outdoor equipment.
But while plans are laid to reduce the services that WRD offers, no one in state government is planning to reduce the cost of the licenses you must buy. Here’s a look at how your services from WRD are being hurt.
If you pass a DNR conservation ranger driving what looks like a truck that has seen better days, or if you see two or three rangers in the same pickup, you are looking at budget problems. Several years of cuts in vehicle-replacement funds have left every WRD section, including Law Enforcement, Game Management and Fisheries, way behind in fleet rotation.
“When I hired on in the mid-80s, we had a 5-year, 130,000-mile rotation. If your vehicle met both of those criteria, it was replaced,” said DNR Law Enforcement Lt. Col. Terry West. “Right now, the years are unlimited and the vehicle has to have 130,000 miles or it can’t even be considered for replacement. I have 72 vehicles in my fleet that meet that criteria, and we have budgeted this year enough money to buy seven.
“It’s been that way for at least five years,” West said, “so every year we get further behind. Every year we’re running older and older vehicles.”
When a ranger’s truck is down for repairs, he rides shotgun with a fellow ranger in a neighboring county until he gets his back, or if he absolutely must have a vehicle of his own he can request one of the handful of spares kept around the state at region offices. GON asked West if down-time for vehicle repairs cutting into a rangers’ field time is a problem. “It’s their number one complaint,” he said. “They don’t want to sit home and study the policy manual and count that as work time, and we don’t want them doing that either.”
Law Enforcement’s fleet of boats, which equals their automobile fleet in number, is in top-notch shape, the result of an annual infusion of $1 million in federal boating-safety funds.
Another looming shortage in Law Enforcement may be rangers.
“We are projecting that by July 1, we will have a total of 25 vacancies within Law Enforcement, including current vacancies and pending retirements,” said West. “We have never had to keep our workforce short, but we’ve been told the ones we have vacant now are not to be filled.”
That isn’t a problem for Law Enforcement yet. The agency doesn’t bring new rangers on until late in the fall, because they can’t begin real work until they’ve completed basic training, and basic training is held once a year beginning in January.
“Now, we are sort of anticipating that we are going to have to leave those vacancies open to help with the budget,” said West. “What we are hoping is that those positions won’t be taken from us permanently.”
If those 25 vacancies were frozen next fall and not filled, West said the agency would have to shuffle rangers. One option would be to move positions away from areas that already have multiple rangers, like around Lake Lanier and other boating-safety priority areas. Another option would be to move positions out of counties with the least need for a ranger. This means counties without a large body of public water, with low numbers of game violations, and with few hunter-education courses. Neighboring rangers would respond to complaints in the unmanned county, reducing their time in their own area of assignment. As an example, the ranger in Rockdale County is currently covering DeKalb County as well, where a retirement has left a vacancy.
At a time when Law Enforcement may be told not to hire anyone, they may actually face an increasing rate of loss — and the cause is terrorism.
“We are losing officers, and so is the GBI and the State Patrol, because the feds have a big push on right now to hire peace officers,” said West. “We’ve lost several already. When they started hiring these air marshals, we lost several to them. We just lost a seven-year-veteran to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, and we just lost one to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.”
With the federal government sparing no expense to secure the homeland, salaries and benefits now offered by federal law-enforcement agencies are getting the attention of Georgia officers. And for WRD, the problem is particularly acute — raises and benefit levels for WRD rangers have not kept pace with GBI or State Patrol personnel in the last two years.
“That’s a real morale killer for our folks,” said West. “They don’t want to play second fiddle to anyone.”
Like Law Enforcement, WRD Game Management is several years behind in the truck-replacement schedule, and like rangers, biologists and WMA managers depend on their vehicles. Job vacancies are also a growing problem. Right now in Game Management, there are seven job vacancies statewide. They include two biologist positions (one in the mountains and one in the eastern Piedmont; this last one has been empty a year-and-a-half) and five wildlife technician positions. Two of these are on Sapelo Island WMA. In four months, those seven vacancies could become 12, according to Chief Todd Holbrook.
Like Law Enforcement, WRD will float its remaining people to absorb work left by vacant job positions. Roving wildlife technicians will cover multiple WMAs, picking up the management work on areas left short of personnel. If some WMAs are left with no personnel at all, they will be small areas with low use, and leased lands rather than state-owned lands.
“There’s often an expectation on the part of the company that leases the land to us that we are able to provide road maintenance, habitat work and law enforcement, etc., and if we can no longer provide those things, they may no longer want to lease it to us,” Holbrook said.
“Ultimately, in some situations the public’s better off if you just close an area and do a good job on the places that you are going to operate.”
A major area of service that Game Management provides to hunters is advice: Your local biologist can visit your land and help you make decisions about what to plant for turkeys or how many does to shoot.
When biologist jobs go vacant, as with the two that are currently open, other biologists divide the work load. “That’s work that’s not getting done,” said Holbrook. “If you’re the biologist covering for a vacancy and someone calls looking for advice or assistance, you may try to handle that by telephone rather than a personal visit, and managing from behind a desk is tough.”
Fisheries Chief Chuck Coomer said his section faces the same severe problem of vehicle-repair bills and down-time that the other sections face. Unlike Law Enforcement, though, Fisheries does not get boating-safety money for their vessels. Other impacts that Coomer mentioned included:
Trout Stocking: There are around six job vacancies in Fisheries right now. The trout program in particular is feeling the squeeze as a result. Previously a position was permanently lost in this program. “We’re stocking smaller fish sooner as a result,” said Coomer. “So there may be fewer catchable trout that will show up in the coming years.”
Striper & Hybrid Production: “We’re going to have some vacancies in Region VII that will affect our striped bass/hybrid production,” said Coomer, “but we’re going to pull personnel in from other regions to get us through this season. Long-term how we’ll deal with this is going to be another question entirely.”
Sportsmen can have an impact on WRD’s budget by contacting their state legislators. They are currently working on the governor’s proposed budget. Find e-mail addresses and phone numbers for your representatives at www.legis.state.ga.us.
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