Monday, September 13, 2010

Delving deeper into budget cuts: Part 3

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has been the target of controversial budget cuts in the past, when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich closed state parks in what he said was an effort to save money. However, many legislators said parks in their districts had been targeted because of their political sparring with the disgraced former governor.

One of Gov. Pat Quinn's first major actions after he took over for Blagojevich was reopening the closed parks. He made the announcement in Springfield and was cheered by hundreds of DNR employees. But now, it is Quinn's turn to cut the budget. And according to DNR spokesman Chris McCloud, the agency is trying to pull off $8.5 million in cuts without any layoffs or park closures. (Italics are pulled from Quinn's proposal.)

($6.1 million) Operations.
Reduce vacant positions.
Shift funds from General Revenue to Other State Funds.
Defer non-critical maintenance at parks.
Implement administrative efficiencies.

The agency will not fill some open positions, and McCloud said employees may be shifted to other positions or trained to handle more duties. He gave the example of encouraging people to apply for licenses and permits, such as fishing and hunting licenses, online. Then, the department could shift some people who work in licensing to other positions.

DNR plans to tap into dedicated state funds and federal funds to avoid using as much money as it can from the state general revenue fund. Examples include: taking money from the Coal Development Fund under an agreement with the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to help pay for mining safety efforts; and using federal dollars from the Great Lakes Initiative to combat the spread of the invasive species Asian carp.

McCloud said deferring non-critical maintenance would mean putting off work such as painting, weather-proofing and upgrading to more efficient equipment. He added that administrative efficiencies would include “major” cuts to printing, travel, overtime pay, energy, leased office space, memberships to professional organizations and subscriptions to magazines and newspapers.

($2.4 million) Lump Sums.
This includes the elimination of the Environment and Nature Training Institute for Conservation Education (E.N.T.I.C.E.) program and the Wildlife Prairie Park subsidy. Funding for the Dam Safety Program, aimed at communicating drowning risks at run-of-the-river dams will be reduced.

Here is a dollar amount breakdown of the lump sum cuts and what they mean to each program:

The ENTICE program is facing the loss of its entire $273,000 budget. The program provides hands-on natural resources and conservation training for teachers. McCloud said DNR is looking for ways to continue the program through other funding sources. “The loss of the ENTICE program diminishes our ability to reach children and families through outdoor education,” he said in a written statement. McCloud added that Environmental Education Association of Illinois (EEAI), Illinois Audubon Society and Illinois Farm Bureau provide similar programs for educators. Elizabeth Hagen-Moeller, president of EEAI, said, “I think there are still alternatives. … a lot of park districts and informal educators will still offer training. … The piece that is missing is the connection to IDNR.”

Hagen-Moeller agreed other options are available for educators looking for conservation training. However, she said cutting ENTICE would mean removing an important avenue for networking teachers with experts in the natural resources community, including DNR employees. “It is disappointing because we definitely need both the formal educators and non-formal educators,” she said. A message I left with the ENTICE program seeking more information on the proposed cuts was not returned.

Wildlife Prairie Park near Peoria would lose its entire $790,000 state subsidy. McCloud said of the park in a written statement, “In the case of Wildlife Prairie State Park, we hope that the foundation which runs it can keep the park open for the many visitors who enjoy it every year.”

Jeff Rosecrans, the executive director of the park, said half the staff has been eliminated through a voluntary buyout option. He said park officials hope to fill the rest of the budget gap by cutting costs, stepping up fundraising efforts and trying to bring in more money. The park brings in revenue through admission costs, lodging and hosting events. He added, “We’ve got good support of community leaders stepping up to the plate.”

The Safety at Dams program would take a $100,000 hit. The program places buoys and signs at state-owned dams and waterways to reduce the risk of drownings. McCloud said the program has built up the number of such safely measures since its inception in 2008. He said funding for this fiscal year is at a “sustainable level for supporting this program.”

(For information on cuts to the Department of Children and Family services and the Department of Agriculture, see the first and second installments of "Delving deeper into the budget cuts" in earlier blog items.)

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