Austere times have arrived for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
“We’re broke. We’d better start acting like we’re broke,” said Fish and Game Commissioner Fred Wood at Thursday’s commission meeting here.
Under fire for being millions of dollars in the hole and having more vehicles than full-time employees, the commission voted to cut $2.6 million from the department’s current budget and find ways to trim for long-term savings.
About $1 million of the proposed cuts will come from reductions in staff, while $1.3 million will be whittled from the department’s capital expenditures.
That means no new four-wheel-drives will be added to the department’s fleet of 596 vehicles, half of the department’s temporary employees will not be rehired and 22 full-time positions will be cut from the work force of 523 - including a hatchery employee in Bonner County.
Those cuts were suggested by staff, but the commissioners said that isn’t enough.
“It looks like we’ve done nothing to make cuts,” said Commissioner Keith Carlson. “We need to … conduct an aggressive review of our assets, what we hold and what we can turn into revenue.”
In addition, the commissioners agreed they should hold fewer meetings and keep them in Boise.
A variety of Fish and Game vehicles were parked at the Bayview Community Center, where the two-day meeting was held. A newer model mini-van, four-wheel drive Chevrolet and GMC pickups of varying ages, a newer model Jeep Cherokee and Chevrolet Bronco shared the lot, all bearing the Fish and Game insignia.
Fish and Game officials say the vehicles are needed, not only for full-time employees, but also for the dozens of temporary employees hired for seasonal field work.
“We hired them to be out in the field. We don’t want them dry-docked in the office,” said assistant Fish and Game director Jerry Mallet, who chaired a task force that examined the department’s vehicle use two years ago.
The commission voted Thursday to examine it again.
Woods offered a lengthy motion calling for an in-depth review of department spending. The motion, which passed unanimously, directed staff to:
inventory all the department vehicles and find a way to reduce the fleet by 5 percent;
find ways to raise revenue through timber sales or grazing fees on Fish and Game lands;
itemize all property, and determine what can be sold;
explore ways to cut travel costs by 10 percent; consider dropping the department’s wildlife magazine or making it self-sufficient through the sale of advertising;
identify options for streamlining department operations, with an emphasis on reducing the number of high salaried positions;
prioritize all inventory, research and data analysis that is not federally funded, and assess whether projects can be deferred or eliminated.
Commissioners suggested other cost-cutting measures, such as mothballing some fish hatcheries.
Department officials warned that the cost-cutting could go only so far, and eventually the commission would have to seek an increase in license fees.
“From a financial standpoint, you’re long overdue for a fee increase,” said Steve Barton, the department’s financial director. “We should have had a fee increase at least a couple of years ago.”
Commissioners expressed doubt that the Legislature would approve any fee increases until the Department of Fish and Game makes a vigorous effort to cut costs and balance its budget. All but one commissioner voted against a fee increase.
“We’re in a day and age that’s constantly looking at bureaucracy and whether it’s out of hand or not,” Chairman Richard Meiers said after the vote. “We’re saying we need to make those cuts before we go asking for a fee increase.”
A drop in non-resident deer tag sales is considered the primary culprit in the department’s financial troubles.
A fee increase three years ago, a change in regulations in southeast Idaho and a harsh winter has hurt the out-of-state sales, said Virgil Moore. “The first year we saw it, we thought it would bounce back,” Moore said. “Eventually we realized, those folks aren’t coming back … The result was a $3 million shortfall over three years.”
Commissioners expressed frustration with convoluted budget documents presented at the meeting and explanations for how the department loaned itself money to make-up the deficit.
“I don’t know if we have to recover a $3.5 million deficit, a $2.1 million deficit or a million-dollar deficit,” said Commissioner Jeff Siddoway. “We’ve more or less said that we want to cut our expenditures and we want to cut it deep enough so it covers whichever deficit we have.”
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