Warden force feels state budget crunch

Sled patrols to be cut back

By Dean Bortz

Editor

Madison For the first time ever, DNR field wardens were ordered
to take two days off during the gun deer season because of budget
shortages.

The DNR law enforcement budget didn’t have enough money to cover
fuel, mileage and overtime, according to DNR chief warden Tom
Harelson.

The news doesn’t get much better Harelson has already told
wardens they’ll have to cut back on patrolling snowmobile trails
this winter.

“Seeing as how they can’t drive anywhere, they’ll have to sit at
trail crossings to check riders,” Harelson said. “We drove a lot of
miles this fall and we’ll have to save up miles for the spring fish
spawn and fishing season.”

On Dec. 5, Harelson gave the Natural Resources Board his report
on the deer gun season. He said that arrests were down by 13
percent (1,340 arrests) from 2000, and are at the lowest level
since 1976. While Harelson attributed some of the decrease to
warmer weather at that time, he also hinted that budget constraints
cut back patrols.

On Dec. 19, Harelson acknowledged that the Bureau of Law
Enforcement tried to keep its budget problems low key during the
hunting seasons so some people might be less inclined to stretch
the law.

That cat’s out of the bag now, though. Harelson aired his budget
concerns before the Joint Finance Committee last month in asking
for emergency funding to the tune of $386,500. That money won’t
help increase field patrols, however. Harelson needs that money to
hire and train 12 warden recruits beginning this month. The
training will take most of this year.

To make matters worse, Harelson ended up hiring just 12 of the
23 wardens he needs to replace retiring officers.

The DNR has hired 67 recruits (including this year’s 12) in the
past five years, but the Bureau faces two more big years of
retirements. If the DNR can’t hire wardens in 2002 and 2003, the
bureau of Law Enforcement will again be understaffed in 2004.

Just how bad is it? Harelson said the bureau is $1.6 million
short of what it needs.

To make up the shortfall, Harelson is:

cutting field warden budgets by $2,500 per warden (a reduction
of about 8,065 miles per warden for the rest of the fiscal
year).

cutting overtime funding by 25 percent (21,360 hours).

cutting by 50 percent the special wardens (assistant wardens).
Permanent wardens will now have to work together and ride in one
vehicle to save miles.

cutting airplane flights used to catch shiners, fish trappers,
cabin shooters and waterfowl baiters by 90 percent.

“Our budgets are mostly salaries and operating expenses, such as
vehicles, fuel, radios and phone calls. Shortfalls really hurt.
It’s not like we can decide not to build a road or campground,”
said Harelson, who is feeling the pinch himself. He said wardens’
two-way truck radios are more than 12 years old and are nearly
obsolete. He doesn’t have money to buy new radios and is just about
out of old units that can be cannibalized to keep other units
operating. “When the next radio goes down, mine is coming out of my
truck and going to a field warden.”

Harelson said the bureau usually cuts the central office staff
first in budget shortfalls.

“The only reason we exist is to support the field. We cut the
central office first, but this time we had to make cuts in the
field, too.”

Harelson has canceled some training sessions for veteran
wardens, along with meetings, out-of-state travel and this year’s
statewide warden conference.

Right now, wardens are doing only limited patrolling. They are
saving their time and miles to respond primarily to complaints
called in by citizens.

One legislator isn’t convinced the DNR doesn’t have money to
operate its warden force.

“We can’t cut back during deer season, we can’t cut back on
hiring we have wardens retiring. The money is coming in, but we
have to find out where it’s going,” said Rep. DuWayne Johnsrud
(R-Eastman), chairman of the Assembly Natural Resources
Committee.

“This is what I’ve been talking about the cry about where does
the money go when you buy a license. Every dollar that goes to pay
some administrative cost, now about 18 percent of the DNR budget,
we have to ask is it better spent in the field than in the central
office? The money is there; it just has to get back to where it
belongs. Say we reduced overhead to 5 to 6 percent that would be a
savings of about $8 million.

“But no, the DNR philosophy is to hit you where it hurts like
cutting the football program in a school budget,” Johnsrud
said.

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