Albany — A healthy balance in the state’s Conservation Fund is being eroded and the fund is “trending toward the red,” a state budget official told the Conservation Fund Advisory Board last month.
But that same official, Jeff Stefanko, DEC’s assistant commissioner of administration, assured board members that the executive branch of state government is not going to let the fund become insolvent.
“We still have a healthy balance, but there is a gap between spending and revenues,” he said. “The fund can’t go into the red (by law). There’s a commitment to keeping the fund in the black; our position is that it’s not going to go in the red.”
At one time showing a $30 million surplus, that figure has dipped to about $21 million. The decline is a product of a couple factors: a shifting of additional environmental conservation officer salaries onto the Conservation Fund, as well as a license fee restructuring in which several license fees were reduced.
“Lowering the license costs was hopefully a good thing, but it created this somewhat unbalanced fund – but there’s a commitment to address it,” Stefanko said, adding that ECO salaries and other costs related to fish and wildlife programs have in the past been shifted to the Conservation Fund when there has been a healthy balance.
“Those factors combined have now created this situation where that balance is going to decline over the next couple of years and it will have to be addressed,” he said.
The yo-yo effect with the Conservation Fund balance isn’t unusual. In past years ECO salaries have been shuttled on and off the fund to keep it from bottoming out. Most recently, 32 new ECOs, the product of a new graduating class of officers, were placed onto the Conservation Fund.
On another occasion several years ago, nearly all ECO salaries were offloaded from the fund to keep it solvent.
Board members have never disputed that at least a portion of ECO salaries should be the responsibility of the Conservation Fund. Board chairman Jason Kemper, in a letter to DEC Commissioner Joe Martens several years ago, said 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.”
Still, board members are concerned over the prospects of seeing the fund erode, and assurances that it will be addressed didn’t seem to ease those concerns.
“I’m not saying there are things on the fund that shouldn’t be there, but I have serious doubts (about items being shifted off the Conservation Fund to other funding sources),” Kemper said.
Board member Bill Conners said the situation is a product of “a couple of counterintuitive things. We started heaping things onto the Conservation Fund, then the (license) fees were lowered and we’re starting to see an acceleration of that march (toward the red).”
The board actually pushed for a reduction in license fees several years ago, but that stance was largely a product of the board’s frustration with spending restrictions during the state’s fiscal crisis. The spending limits were imposed on the heels of a license fee increase that was sold to the state’s hunters, anglers and trappers as being necessary to fund fish and wildlife programs.
Board member Charlie Pace suggested a look at “other revenue streams” to boost the Conservation Fund, such as a dedicated excise tax on sporting equipment. The board has in the past pushed for that tax to no avail.
“In some state’s eight-tenths of a percent has given a huge (revenue) stream,” Pace said.
Stefanko, however, said there “hasn’t been a strong desire (by the governor’s office) to increase fees or create new fees.”