More ECO salary shifts onto Conservation Fund
CFAB frustrated by vacancies within fish/wildlife division
Albany - Just weeks after shifting the salaries of 20 environmental conservation officers onto the state's Conservation Fund, budget officials have moved 65 more ECOs over to the same account - one that's composed primarily of sporting license fee revenues.
Conservation Fund Advisory Board members had previously voiced concern that the salaries of additional ECOs would be moved from the state's general fund back onto the Conservation Fund. But they may have been surprised that it happened so quickly.
And while the board has indicated it has no problem with covering the salaries of at least some of the state's ECOs, there's a lingering concern that the budget shifts could sap a healthy surplus in the Conservation Fund, without addressing numerous vacant positions within DEC's Bureau of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources.
The most recent ECO salary and fringe benefit shifts will likely mean over $8 million in expenses covered through the Conservation Fund. That will erode a surplus of about $30 million.
But the bigger source of frustration to CFAB members is that while more ECO salaries are being covered by sportsmen's dollars, DEC is unable to fill vacant positions within its Bureau of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources - even though money is available in the fund to cover the cost of those positions.
"We have no problem - as we've said in the past - paying for some ECO positions," CFAB chairman Jason Kemper said. "But when we have 65 ECO positions (shifted over to the Conservation Fund) and are adding eight staff to DEC, and not one within the division of fish and wildlife, it's going to be a very, very big issue (with sportsmen)."
The state's hunters, anglers and trappers in 2009 were hit with a sweeping license fee increase, one that was sold to sportsmen as one needed to fill vacant positions within DEC's fish and wildlife division.
That, however, hasn't happened, although indications are that DEC is now in the process of filling about a dozen jobs within the state's fish hatchery system.
But the state's budget crisis has prompted budget officials to impose a "cash ceiling" that dramatically limits expenditures from within the Conservation Fund.
"This has been going on for two years," Kemper said at last month's CFAB meeting. "The time has come when we're just not going to continue to pay and not get anything in return. This isn't going away and it's going to get a lot bigger pretty quick. Somebody had better figure out pretty quickly how we start to fill some of these positions."
The issue continues to percolate with the state's sportsmen since last year's repeal of a $10 saltwater fishing license. That move by state lawmakers drove a wedge between saltwater anglers and the freshwater fishing fraternity.
Kemper, in a letter to DEC assistant secretary for energy and environment Thomas Congdon, noted that the hunting, fishing and trapping community in New York "is the only interest group that funds the management of the resources that are important to them." And those license holders are an economic engine in New York, with license sales generating about $47 million annually, as well as millions more in federal funding that's tied directly to license sale figures.
Kemper also noted that hunting, fishing and trapping pours an estimated $2 billion into the state's economy each year. And he's frustrated that "the money collected from the sporting community is not being used in the manner it was intended to when the license fee increase was initiated."
The issue has even brought some CFAB members to the point of considering on recommending a license fee decrease.
"There is no need to carry this large balance with the current staffing levels in the Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources, so reduced revenues and reduced fees seem to be completely in order and are consistent with Gov. Cuomo's messages," Kemper said in the letter.
CFAB figures showed there's currently 349 total staff in DEC's fish and wildlife division; that's down from 412 in August of 2009 when the license fee hike went into effect. Despite the reduced staffing, more staff salaries - 228, as opposed to 189 in 2009 - are now covered by the Conservation Fund.
Budget officials have in recent years volleyed ECO salaries in and out of the Conservation Fund, and at one time moved virtually all ECO salaries out of the fund to address a huge deficit within the Conservation Fund.
But the budget office's ability to move ECO salaries in and out of the Conservation Fund raises concern that more could be shifted back to be covered by sportsmen's dollars.