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Great Lakes Article:

DNR budget long on enforcement, short on services
New fees, warden overtime, fleet costs all soar
Lakeland Times
Richard Moore
March 27, 2009

While the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is taking just a small hit in Gov. Jim Doyle's proposed 2009-11 state budget, despite a looming $5.7 billion state deficit, the cuts that do exist, along with shifts in programming priorities, reflect an administration and agency that desire to focus less on customer service and more on law enforcement and environmental regulation.

The budget proposes $584.4 million for the agency in 2009-10 and $579.2 million for 2010-11 - a reduction of only $2.2 million from the 2007-09 biennial budget.

The blueprint calls for approximately $75 million in fee increases, reduced services for the general population, and cuts in grant support for counties, municipalities, non-profits, and private entities, while holding the line on funding for law enforcement, including the training and deployment of a new class of conservation wardens with expanded law enforcement authority.

Gone would be 24 customer service centers. Gone would be forestry grants to local fire departments. Gone would be the recycling Clean Sweep program. Gone would be public access grants.

Preserved and increased would be warden overtime. Created would be a new legal advisor. Increased would be funding for the agency's vehicle fleet.

Speaking before the Legislature's Joint Committee on Finance last week, DNR secretary Matt Frank wasted little time in setting out the department's core objectives.

"Under Gov. Doyle's budget, we protect key environmental and conservation priorities while cutting costs, streamlining operations, and making tough choices," Frank said. "There are no major spending increases for new initiatives in this budget. We hold the line

on general hunting and fishing license fees while preserving core wildlife, fisheries, habitat, and law enforcement activities."

At the top of the hit list are 24 customer service centers, including the one in Woodruff, where the DNR will save $3.2 million by ending counter service; such service will be maintained at the agency's six major regional headquarters, including Rhinelander.

"Another major change proposed in our budget relates to how we provide license sales and information services to the public," the secretary explained. "Serving the people of Wisconsin through excellent customer service is an important priority for the DNR. The budget proposes to close counter service at 24 DNR service centers statewide, and strengthen our telephone, Internet and private retailer network."

Right now at the service centers, according to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau analysis of the operations, customers may purchase hunting and fishing licenses, special hunting tags and stamps, park stickers, nonresident snowmobile trail passes, ATV trail passes, and bike trail passes, and counter staff processes recreational vehicle registrations for boats, snowmobiles, and ATVs. The staff also issues dog-training permits and open burning permits, hands out pamphlets and answers questions related to DNR regulations and license issues.

All those counter services would be eliminated, the LFB states.

In addition, Frank said, various grant programs would be shorn of funding during the biennium.

"The MFL (Managed Forest Law) Public Access Grant program and Urban Forestry grants will not receive funds during the biennium," he said. "The Waterways Commission Access and Urban non-point source grants to municipalities will be reduced. Recycling efficiency grants and recycling demonstration grants will be eliminated."

The MFL Public Access Grant Program awards grants to local units of government, nonprofit organizations and others for acquiring easements or purchasing land specifically for public access to offset the impact of closed acreage under the MFL program.

To help shore up the agency's wildlife damage appropriation account, the DNR proposes to increase the wildlife damage claim deductible from $250 to $500 and specify that if the amount of the claim is more than $500 but not more than $5,250, the claimant will be paid 100 percent of the amount of the claim up to the statutory maximum, the LFB states.

However, the budget would reduce the maximum amount paid to a claimant from $15,000 to $10,000 for each claim, according to the budget analysis. In addition, the DNR plans to transfer $350,000 in 2010-11 from the recycling and renewable energy fund to the wildlife damage appropriation account.

The wildlife damage claims and abatement program provides landowners in participating counties with financial assistance to implement projects to reduce crop damage and to receive reimbursement from losses due to wildlife crop damage.

The governor would also delete $1 million annually from the forestry outdoor activities grant program, the LFB analysis states. The program offers grants to cities, villages, towns, counties, non-profit conservation organizations, and others to acquire easements or purchase land for approved outdoor recreational activities such as hunting, fishing, hiking, sightseeing, and cross-country skiing.

Despite all the cuts, Frank said the agency would be holding the line in law enforcement and other essential public safety functions.

"There are no cuts in conservation wardens, and we intend to deploy a new class of wardens in the field in 2011," he said.

The proposed budget provides $178,800 annually for increased warden overtime. In addition, it would provide $175,000 from the conservation fund in 2009-10 to support an expected 2010 conservation warden recruit class of eight members.

Funding would cover the costs of recruiting, hiring, and training, as well as costs related to police certification, the LFB states.

The budget would also create a new legal position, a chief legal advisor with a price tag of $179,500 a year.

Other increases include $686,100 each year to pay for increases in vehicle fleet costs, which, the LFB stated, the DNR reported a 48.5 percent spike for fiscal year 2008-09. The agency attributed the high increase to a decline in available reserve funds combined with increasing fleet acquisition, maintenance, and insurance costs.

Fee hikes abound

The proposed budget includes approximately $75 million in fee increases over the biennium, though none for hunting or fishing licenses. However, Frank said the motorboat registration fee would rise, as would the tipping fee for solid waste, even as recycling efforts are trimmed.

The three-year motorboat registration increase would raise approximately $2.1 million in the biennium. The solid waste tipping fee, which is imposed on most waste entering landfills, excluding high-volume industrial waste, would rise by $4.40 a ton, from $5.90 to $10.30, raising almost $50 million over the two-year period.

The DNR is also proposing to make the $9 per title vehicle environmental impact fee on vehicle registrations permanent. That fee is scheduled to sunset at the end of this year.

Some of the fee increases will affect specific business operations, including proposed hikes in hazardous waste fees and in air operation permit fees.

Other fee requests include an increase in the wildlife violator compact surcharge from $5 to $20 to fund a full-time position to oversee Wisconsin's participation in the compact, which allows the state to track violators who have had their hunting, fishing, or trapping privileges revoked or suspended in other states.

The DNR also recommends increasing the application fee for a bobcat hunting and trapping permit from $3 to $6, effective March 31, 2010, and an increase in the application fee for an elk hunting license from $3 to $10. All revenues from those fee increases would be deposited in the fish and wildlife account of the conservation fund.

The increase in the elk hunting license fee came under sharp fire at last week's Joint Finance hearing, especially from state Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), who called it a money grab, considering the DNR has yet to conduct an elk hunt.

According to the LFB analysis, the agency will consider a hunt only when it determines that the total elk population is approximately 200 animals; this past spring the number was put at 150. The DNR estimated the herd could surpass 200 as early as the spring of 2010, in which case a limited bull-only elk season could take place by December 2010, the LFB stated.

However, the LFB observed, "while very few licenses would be expected to be available, DNR estimates that more than 20,000 hunters would apply, generating over $200,000 in annual revenue."

At the Joint Finance hearing, Frank put the number of actual licenses to be issued at around five, the Wisconsin Radio Network reported.

Some of the DNR's budget maneuvers will require changes in the law.

For example, according to the LFB, the budget would provide $509,500 a year from the transportation fund and delete $514,600 from the general fund to pay for the transport of car-killed deer, even though current law does not allow the transportation fund to be used for that purpose.

The Doyle administration is making a number of legislative proposals to convert appropriations from the general fund to the transportation fund. Funding for the car-killed deer removal program would total $1,019,000 annually under the bill, funded equally between the transportation fund and the fish and wildlife account of the conservation fund.

In other budget matters, with its reauthorized Stewardship program, the DNR continues to use bonding authority to borrow money for land purchases, for a total cost this past year of approximately $71 million, when state aid in lieu of taxes is factored in.

The 2009-11 DNR budget would transfer $2.5 million in debt service payments each year from the general fund, tapping a segregated forestry account of the conservation fund instead. The forestry account of the conservation fund already provides the first $13.5 million of funding for debt service payments each year; that fund would now pay the first $16 million in debt service on general obligation bonds.

Stewardship debt service costs are estimated at $48 million in 2009-10 and $54.7 million in 2010-11.

A frank view

In his testimony before the Joint Finance Committee, Frank said the budget represented a test for the agency, but he said his dedicated staff and agency partners would give anchor in the stormy weather.

"While this is a challenging budget for the DNR, we have two assets that will carry us through the next several years - our staff and our partners," he said. "Our DNR staff has proven time and time again that through their dedication we can successfully achieve our goals - even in challenging times. Our staff is talented, committed and hardworking. We are fortunate to have such fine public servants serving the people of Wisconsin."

But, he reminded lawmakers, that staff has been pruned considerably, including approximately 300 positions the DNR is temporarily not filling.

"This budget includes a net base reduction of 85.5 full-time employees for DNR, bringing overall authorized staffing down from 2,745.5 to 2,660 permanent positions," Frank said. "With the vacancies we are holding open, our current staffing level is actually closer to 2,350. Despite the tough economic times, our budget largely avoids making cuts in permanent positions that provide direct services or mainly conduct field work including wildlife biologists, wardens, fish specialists, foresters, air quality monitors, water permit reviewers, and others."

And, he said, despite just a net decrease of $2.2 million over the previous biennium, the overall budget contained significant cost-cutting and savings measures.

"The DNR budget has ongoing annual base reductions of $18.9 million, including position cuts and cuts in grant programs," he told lawmakers. "These reductions are partially offset by increases associated with cost to continue items, including full funding of staff salaries and increases related to maintaining programs and priorities like the Great Lakes Compact."

In addition, Frank continued, the DNR will lapse $15 million over the biennium, including the 300 open positions, while maintaining the most substantive services and programs.

"We maintain funding for other core DNR functions - protecting clean air and clean water, preserving our forests, and providing outdoor recreation opportunities for Wisconsin citizens," he said in his testimony. ". . . Over the next biennium the DNR will continue to play a key role in Gov. Doyle's energy independence initiative, making Wisconsin a national leader in Climate Change policy, improving our environment, and growing green jobs."

Environmental organizations, which have come together as a unit known as the 2009 Conservation Budget Coalition, have given a mixed reaction to the budget - though in general more positive than negative - emphasizing some differences of opinion while offering support in other areas.

The coalition includes such groups as 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, Association of Retired Conservationists, Clean Wisconsin, League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, River Alliance of Wisconsin, Sierra Club-John Muir Chapter, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited-Wisconsin Chapter, and the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association.

Among other things, the groups support the governor's proposed tipping fee increase, but want funding for county conservation departments restored and increased. They also warned about another of the governor's long-time proposals, which he again included in the budget: the consolidation of attorneys in a state Division of Legal Services.

While proponents believe stripping the DNR and other agencies of their own staff attorneys and making them request and justify legal assistance to a Division of Legal Services would reduce aggressive and sometimes overzealous litigation, environmentalists call it bad public policy.

"Proper application of complex conservation and environmental law depends on DNR programs having objective legal counsel who have developed relationships with staff and have understanding of the law and programs," the coalition's March 16 budget memo stated. ". . . Proposed DOA consolidation authority will hurt DNR's independence, create loss of expertise and institutional knowledge, and cause conflicts in representation and interests."

 

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