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Fish and Game Department faces difficult financial future

December 18, 2013
LANCASTER — Six of the state's 11 Fish and Game Commissioners, along with Wildlife Division Chief Mark Ellingwood, Inland Fisheries Chief Jason Smith, Major Kevin Jordan of Groveton, Lt. Wayne Saunders of Stark, regional wildlife biologist Will Staats, and cold water fisheries biologist Dianne Timmons, met with about 25 outdoor enthusiasts on Tuesday evening, Dec. 10, in the state Fish and Game Building on Route 3.

Biennial hearings are held in odd-numbered years to provide the public a chance to comment on and suggest changes any aspect of Department operations, ranging from fishing and hunting rules to wildlife management strategies.

Commissioner David Patch of Carroll County pointed out the Fish and Game Department faces serious financial problems. In this biennium that started July 1, the Department would not have been able to adequately fulfill its responsibilities in the current biennium if the Legislature had not transferred funds, and the Fish and Game Fund would have been depleted by June 30, 2015. The stopgap funding was achieved using several techniques — by reducing the amount that may be deposited in certain funds before the excess is deposited in the Fish and Game Fund, using certain funds to pay for Fish and Game staff costs, allowing monies collected from hatchery vending machines to be used for additional purchases, and, significantly, making a one-time transfer from the General Fund to the Fish and Game Fund that totaled $699,000 for FY 14 and $893,000 for FY 15.

The Legislature also set up the Commission to Study Opportunities and Options to Improve the Sustainability of the Fish and Game Department, designed to find long-term funding solutions. This Commission includes members of the House and Senate, including District I Sen. Jeff Woodburn of Dalton who is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Executive Director Glenn Normandeau, Fish and Game Commissioner Tom Hubert, and three members of the public appointed by Governor Maggie Hassan. The study Commission reported its initial findings on Nov. 1 and expects to continue its work.

Sen. Woodburn was the only Commission member who did not sign it.

In response to an e-mail inquiry about the report, Jane Vachon of the Department's Public Affairs section pointed out that the Commission mentioned several possible ideas that could be pursued to help address the Department's financial issues. But, she said, the Department was not aware that any specific legislation has been filed.

"In the coming months, hopefully, the Legislature and the public will be able to work together to come up with and pass positive solutions," Vachon said.

One of the suggestions included in the Commission's report is a "canoe-kayak conservation decal," she explained. "Some media have been picking up on this as a live proposal, but they pretty much jumped the gun."

Woodburn sent out a press release on Friday afternoon asserting that he had killed the "proposed $10 tax on un-motorized boats, after several days of rallying opposition to it. He reported, "The boat tax has been sunk; now it is time to fix Fish and Game with serious, not silly solutions."

Woodburn pointed out, "The State Fish and Game department, an agency self-funded by hunting and fishing licenses, is in financial trouble with increased demand for services and decrease in hunting licenses. Recently, the Department admitted taking funds from a dedicated fund to pay salaries.

"Last session," he said, "I advocated for General Fund dollars — nearly $1.6 million over two years — to support this agency, but we need to see greater transparency, a broader vision, a tighter focus on their core mission, and a smart, comprehensive strategic plan."

Woodburn noted it was unclear whether there ever was a draft bill or if it was a Legislative study committee recommendation, but the Massachusetts-based "Eagle Tribune" ran a story on Dec. 9 in which, he said, "several members of the Commission defended the idea of a new fee."

Woodburn pointed out that he had polled many of this his Senate colleagues and found "little support and many concerns about the current situation."

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