CPO layoffs would hit at worst time

Springfield — The pending layoff of 33 Conservation Police Officers could not have come at a worse time – for DNR or for the general public interested in the state’s wildlife, conservation, and outdoors.

The cuts, part of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s larger trim of the state payroll that includes 107 DNR staffers, are set to take effect Sept. 30, which is the day before the state’s archery deer and turkey seasons open. They also come as waterfowl hunters prepare to hit blinds and marshes. As this issue of Illinois Outdoor News went to press, DNR Director Wayne Rosenthal had not yet strategized with DNR Chief of DNR Law Enforcement Rafael Gutierrez about how to deal with the CPO reduction in light of the upcoming hunting season. Rosenthal did say that the plan will vary by region, according to priorities.

Rosenthal said that he personally called each CPO facing layoff due to budget cuts “because it was the right thing to do.”

“Our desire is to get this resolved as quickly as possible,” he said. He also stated that his hope is that the layoffs are temporary, which was one reason he chose to reach out to each officer individually – to let them know that he would do everything in his power to get them back to work.

In March, shortly after being appointed by Rauner, Rosenthal said the biggest problem with DNR is that the agency had already taken a lot of cuts over the past 12 years.

“Our biggest concern is that we keep our staffing where it needs to be,” he said. “We can be efficient, but we need manpower.”

Six months and dozens of pending layoffs later, Rosenthal still feels that way.

“Since the layoffs are scattered throughout the entire state, even with the budget cuts, I’m still confident that we can still get the job done,” he said.

In a letter signed by DNR Human Resource Director Michele Cusumano July 31 and addressed to Sean Smoot, Director of the Police Benevolence and Protection Association, the agency announced, “In accordance with Article XIV, Section 3, of the current collective bargaining agreement, this correspondence will serve as official notification of the Department of Natural Resources’ intent to initiate a layoff. The proposed effective date of the layoff is at the close of business on September 30, 2015. The reason for the layoff is lack of funds.”

Receiving the notice was the first time Smoot had heard of the pending layoffs, he said.

Tim Sickmeyer, who served as an Illinois CPO for more than 28 years, said there are a lot of reasons to be concerned about the situation.

“While revenue generation is not the primary reason for issuing citations, it would be naïve to think that revenue generated does not help the DNR budget for implementing programs and overall operations,” said Sickmeyer, who spent a good part of his career as the agency’s Chief of Investigations before retiring in 2010. He now works as a governmental consultant with the general assembly, advocating for CPOs, as well as for sportsmen and natural resource issues.

“Money generated from fines usually goes into specific funds such as the Fish and Wildlife Fund, The Boating Fund [used for enforcement and boat access areas], the State Park Fund, etc.,” said Sickmeyer, who noted that federal funding and reimbursement could actually be diminished due to fewer CPOs in the field because DNR gets a portion reimbursed from the U.S. Coast Guard, Homeland Security, and invasive species prevention programs.

Sickmeyer said that he’s also naturally concerned about safety.

“Safety should always be the number one concern – DNR and the administration are going to have to carefully weigh the impact to safety of the public these cuts will have and yet balance that with funding,” he said. “The assumption that local, county, and state police agencies can pick up the slack is short-sighted and off the mark. None of these agencies have the additional manpower or training to adequately address the issues CPOs deal with.”

Another negative factor to reducing CPO staff is the possibility that poachers and unethical people will have more opportunity to “step up their game” in terms of illegal activities.

Sickmeyer holds the opinion that while no one likes to get a ticket, the lack of officers in an area removes the fear instilled that, if you are going to poach, you may get caught. Instead, lack of officers allows unscrupulous people to try and get away with crime.

Among the CPOs targeted to be laid off if a budget or some other compromise is not reached before Sept. 30 are 13 new recruits who graduated from the training academy on July 24 and were scheduled to begin their field training mid-August. Instead, they must wait in limbo. The other 20 layoffs include experienced, veteran field officers. Furthermore, 25 of the 33 are military veterans.

As it stands, several counties will go into the fall hunting season without a CPO to handle enforcement of hunting and wildlife laws. Will a strategy involving the shifting of CPOs work? 

Given his experience, Sickmeyer believes that shifting officers around to different regions in order to supplement the layoffs might work for short time periods, as this is already done during certain times of the year, such as firearms deer season and special events like the Illinois State Fair.

However, in the long term, Sickmeyer warns that travel expenses could accumulate quickly and take an extended toll on the budget.

“The DNR could not sustain a long-term shift of officers for that would essentially be the same as ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul,’” he said. “I feel that part of the problem with CPOs and what makes them a seemingly easy target is that the general non-sporting public has no idea what these officers do.”

Neither Rosenthal nor Sickmeyer were surprised that DNR is the agency taking a blunt of state cuts.

“Why is DNR the agency?” asked Sickmeyer. “I don’t know the answer, but I believe it won’t be the last if this [budget mess] isn’t straightened out.”

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