Study: Merger a mixed bag

Harrisburg — Merging the Pennsylvania Game and Fish & Boat commissions might save money, but whether the savings are enough to justify it is debatable.

That seems to be the conclusion of a study looking into joining the agencies into one.

The Legislative Budget and Finance Committee recently examined the idea of a merger and presented its final report in March. The idea is not new. As the committee noted, a merger is something that’s been examined off and on since 1947.

This time around, the committee’s research determined that combining the agencies could save millions of dollars annually, primarily in personnel costs. 

“We project that a merged agency – using the structure proposed in this report – would save approximately $4.8 million annually in personnel costs. This includes approximately $1.75 million in savings at the headquarters level and $3.08 million in reductions at the regional level,” the report reads.

Among the jobs that could be trimmed are one executive director, one press secretary, one legislative liaison and several regional managers, the report stated.

A combined agency would need to maintain staffing levels in the bureaus of habitat management, fisheries, hatcheries and engineering, and actually increase staffing in the Bureau of Wildlife Management, it added.

A combined agency would also have to create a new bureau of species diversity, elevating the Game Commission’s wildlife diversity section and environmental planning and habitat protection division and the Fish & Boat Commission’s Division of Environmental Services in the process.

A new merged agency would also have to maintain both of the commission’s existing headquarters buildings, it added.

Reaction to the report was mixed.

The commissions were given the chance to read and respond to the report prior to its public release. Carl Roe, then executive director of the Game Commission, took the opportunity to say a merger would not be as beneficial as might be believed.

That’s true for a number of reasons, he suggested, not the least of which is the massive amount of work that would be required to change existing law to give conservation officers the authority to enforce regulations.

A merger poses problems beyond that, though, he added.

“We are confident that after a complete analysis of the start-up cost of merging the organizations there will be little if any return on investment in either the short term or midterm of any such action,” Roe wrote.

“Numerous studies of both the private and public sectors have shown that in merged organizations the anticipated savings do not appear and the costs to combine the two organizations are always higher than anticipated.”

The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission also weighed in on a merger, likewise suggesting it’s a bad idea. Executive Director John Arway said repeatedly in the months leading up to the report’s release that a merged agency would be bigger, but not necessarily better or more efficient.

The report seemed to bear that out in one sense.

“As shown by the other states’ organizations and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the management of these resources by a single entity is certainly feasible.

“However, compared to other states’ expenditures per license we reviewed, the PF&BC and PGC combined expenditure per license is lower than average, suggesting that significant savings in a merger may be limited,” reads the Budget and Finance Committee study.

It went on to note that the Fish  & Boat Commission has already adopted a policy of “expending only an amount equal to revenues received and is projecting no operating deficits [or surpluses] for the next five years.”

“The Game Commission is “projecting operating deficits for these same years,” it adds.

Arway said after the report’s release that those statements show that the Fish & Boat Commission, at least, is doing the best job for anglers and boaters as is.

“The report makes it clear that we are extremely efficient in how we use our financial resources. Specifically, the [budget and finance committee] found that of the states surveyed, our agency has the lowest expenditures per license.

“That means that for each dollar of license fees brought in, the [commission] returns a greater value to its license buyers and the citizens of the commonwealth than all of the other state agencies included in their analysis,” Arway said.

“Simply put, we do a lot with a little when compared to other agencies across the country,” he added.

Ellen Ferretti, secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which manages state parks and forests, also discussed the fallout of a possible merger.

In response to a question from the Budget and Finance Committee, she said the department has no desire to see the law enforcement arms of the two commissions put under its control.

Park and forest rangers are the department’s “front line” staff and often makes the initial contact with the public, she said. The goal of those rangers is to make sure visitors enjoy safe, fun visits to the department’s facilities, she added.

“We are gravely concerned that combining all law enforcement under DCNR would result in emphasis being redirected towards law enforcement at the expense of public contact and visitor services,” she said.

It would also require the hiring of additional staff and decrease safety for visitors, as the rangers who are not widely dispersed and closer to the public would be, of necessity, doing other jobs.

State Rep. Martin Causer, the Potter County Republican who called for the $125,000 merger study to be conducted, saw things differently, however. He said the report suggests to him that a merger might be a good idea.

“The idea of a merger is definitely something that deserves further consideration,” Causer said. “After reading through the study, I would classify the proposed savings as a very conservative estimate; I think the savings would be far greater.

“But no matter what the amount, I firmly believe we should be working to save every dollar we can and instead investing that money in initiatives to benefit our sportsmen across the state.”

Causer – a frequent critic of the Game Commission over its deer management policies – also took the report’s release as an opportunity to throw a dart its way.

Referencing the commission board’s troubles with its executive office – it negotiated a $220,000 legal settlement with Roe over his “forced” early retirement that’s since been called into question and been told by Gov. Tom Corbett to either refrain from choosing as his successor a man under investigation by the State Ethics Committee or resign en masse – Causer said the merger study is “one more piece of evidence” about the need to reform the state’s wildlife agencies.

Causer said he will be reviewing the study in more detail in the coming weeks and will schedule a meeting of the game and fisheries committee to discuss it.

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