New ECOs covered by Conservation Fund

Albany — New York is in the process of training 32 new environmental conservation officers at its academy in Oswego County.

Those cadets are already on the state payroll, having essentially been hired upon their acceptance to the academy.

And the new officers are being paid for through the Conservation Fund, a pot of money that has swelled to about $37 million and is largely the product of sporting license revenues.

It’s not an unusual move; state budget officials have, at various times, shifted ECOs on and off the Conservation Fund, including a move in December 2011 in which the salaries and benefits of 20 officers were added on to the Conservation Fund, and then 65 more just weeks later.

Still, the recent shift of the prospective ECOs’ salaries onto the Conservation Fund has brought renewed frustration for the Conservation Fund Advisory Board, which monitors expenditures within the fund.

CFAB chairman Jason Kemper is quick to point out that the board “supports the ECOs 100 percent,” but the constant shifting of ECOs on and, at times, off the Conservation Fund has been disconcerting. That’s especially true in light of the bloated Conservation Fund and the ongoing staff shortages within DEC’s fish and wildlife division.

“The May 2013 cash balance in the Conservation Fund was over $37 million,” Kemper said in a recent letter to DEC Commissioner Joe Martens. “Yet, since the license fee increase there are over 50 fewer staff in the Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources and well over 100 more DEC staff being charged to the Conservation Fund.”

While the fund has a huge surplus and more ECO salaries are being covered by the fund, Kemper says “numerous fish and wildlife activities are not being completed as they have been in previous years.”

Those programs and activities include fisheries sampling and monitoring, pond reclamations, operation of hunting co-ops, furbearer pelt sealing (except at larger events), bear and deer harvest checking, wild egg takes for hatchery production and fish hatchery production.

Kemper also says CFAB members weren’t notified of the shifting of the ECO cadet salaries onto the Conservation Fund.

There was actually a net of 27 additional ECO salaries moved onto the Conservation Fund. All 32 cadets were placed on the fund, but the retirements of five officers whose salaries were covered by the fund created the net of 27.

It’s an issue that places the board in a somewhat awkward position. Kemper stressed in his letter to Martens the board “fully supports the efforts made by the ECOs on behalf of the sporting community and believes the Conservation Fund should be responsible for a portion of those costs.”

But board members also want what Kemper called “critical vacancies within the Division of Fish, Wildlife, and Marine Resources” to be filled to “restore DEC’s fish and wildlife program, maintain what license buyers perceive as a commitment from New York State, and effectively manage New York’s fish and wildlife resources.”

He reminded Martens in the letter that in 2009 sportsmen and women supported a license fee increase “in order to keep DEC’s fish and wildlife programs status quo. That has clearly not been the case.”

Budget officials at one time removed all ECOs from Conservation Fund responsibility when the fund was suffering a major cash shortage. That’s no longer the case, with license revenues streaming in amid spending limits placed on DEC’s fish and wildlife department – as well as all state agencies – during the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis.

Another issue percolating with the state’s sportsmen is paying for ECOs when not all of their work relates to fish and wildlife. In New York City, for example, many ECOs spend much of their time enforcing emissions regulations.

Typically, new ECOs are placed in the New York City area upon graduation from the academy.

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