Red ink: $7M deficit in Conservation Fund

Staff report

Albany — DEC’s Conservation Fund, the major budget source of the
Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources, is facing a $7
million “structural deficit” that has officials scrambling for ways
to generate additional revenues.

Director of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources Gerald Barnhart
said they’re currently looking at ways to address the shortfall.
And the state’s Conservation Fund Advisory Board, which oversees
expenditures from the fund, is eyeing ways of increasing revenues
for the fund.

One of those, Barnhart says, is not an increase in hunting and
fishing license fees, Barnhart said.

“I think it (a license fee hike) could be on the table at some
point in the future but I don’t think it’s on the table in anyone’s
mind right now,” Barnhart said.

The chief concern at this point is how to deal with the $7
million deficit. The fund essentially has about $7 million less
than it needs to cover existing program costs.

One major factor leading to the shortfall is that the Fish and
Wildlife division – unlike other state departments – pays about $12
million annually in retirement and health insurance costs out of
the fund.

“We need to identify some long-term solutions that will resolve
that $7 million structural deficit,” Barnhart said. “There are a
number of ways to deal with that short-term, such as using some
additional general fund monies to offset that. We’re going to see
what the new administration wants to do budget-wise and if there
may be any interest in providing some additional general fund
support on a consistent basis for some period of time.”

Barnhart said the general fund support to the Conservation Fund
has dwindled substantially from mid-1990s levels.

For now, the state Division of Budget has approved a move to
defer paying some of the fringe benefit charges, which Barnhart
says “are substantial.”

Conservation Fund Advisory Board members are also looking at
ways to address the shortfall. Pushing for legislation that would
lower the minimum hunting age from its current 16 years of age –
the most restrictive in the nation – to 14 or 12 would introduce
more youth to the sport and ultimately generate more license
revenues.

Other proposals such as a visible fishing license, which would
help environmental conservation officers identify individuals
fishing without a license, would also help. And discussions about a
one-tenth of one percent surcharge on outdoor-related purchases,
while getting mixed reviews from board members, could also boost
the fund.

“The main duty of this board is to keep the (Conservation Fund)
solvent,” said Board Chairman Robert Monacchio. “Two or three years
from now we’re going to have more of a deficit, and that’s going to
affect programs.”

The Conservation Fund deficit doesn’t include arbitration awards
for law enforcement personnel handed down last year, which Barnhart
said will boost that figure.

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