January 31. 2013 8:55PM

Lost, found ... and billed for it: Effort renewed to pass the cost of rescues on to the rescued

State House Bureau

CONCORD - Lost and injured hikers will pay a minimum fee to help cover the cost of their rescue under a bill that proposes to reduce the deficit in the Fish and Game Department's search and rescue program.

The minimum rescue fee is one of three revenue raisers in House Bill 256 that sponsors believe will generate about $57,000 a year for a program that costs about $200,000. The fund routinely runs a deficit of about $100,000.

Hunters, fishermen, snowmobilers, boaters and all-terrain vehicle users currently pay the entire cost of rescues, while hikers account for about 60 percent of search and rescue operations.

Under the bill, those contributing to the rescue fund would not be charged for rescues, nor would someone who purchases an $18 hike safe card that the department would issue.

All others needing rescue would be charged on a sliding scale ranging from $350 to $1,000 based on the actual cost. The third source of funding would be a $10 surcharge on all fines for violating fish and game laws.

While lost and injured hikers often receive the most attention, Fish and Game search and rescues operations are for lost children, Alzheimer patients who wander away, drowning victims and fugitives hiding in the woods, said Fish and Game Executive Director Glenn Normandeau.

The prime sponsor of the bill, House Minority Leader Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, told the House Fish and Game Committee, said it is not fair for sportsmen to be paying for the fund when they are not the prime users.

"This is a problem and we need to fix the problem." Chandler told the committee, but he ruled out using state general fund money, saying that is not an option.

Others agree the current system is not fair and something needs to be done to properly fund search and rescue operations, but believe the state's general fund should be used to pay for what they call an essential state service.

Former House Fish and Game Committee Chairman Dennis Abbott of Newmarket said what was being proposed would not solve the problem.

"This bill is like the little Dutch Boy who puts his finger in the dike," Abbott said. "This will not even come close to getting out of the deficit."

He said it was time for lawmakers to do something significant and fund search and rescue operations out of the state's general fund.

"It's time to fish or cut bait," Abbott said.

Susan Arnold, vice president for conservation of the Appalachian Mountain Club, said funding for the search and rescue program has been a problem for 25 years and she agrees the current funding mechanism is not fair.

"Search and rescue is about public safety, and is a public service critical to New Hampshire's $4.2 billion active outdoor recreation economy," Arnold said. "The fairest way to fund search and rescue is to allocate a miniscule portion - .002 percent - of revenues generated by the rooms and meals tax - a tax paid by the full range of potential users of search and rescue services, including hikers."

Arnold was concerned charging a fee for all rescues would make people reluctant to call for help, putting themselves and rescuers at more risk once the call is made later.

Volunteer groups who help with rescues in the mountains agree with Arnold and several volunteers said many may stop helping if the state charges for rescues.

John Scarniza, president of the Randolph Mountain Club that helps with rescues, and a former New Hampshire State Police troop commander, doubted the bill would raise $25,000. He said charging for rescue may cause many volunteers to decide not to help anymore letting the state run the entire operation.

"That's $25,000 in revenue for a tremendous loss of good will among volunteers and tourists," he said.

Scarniza said the hiking community makes a significant contribution to search and rescue efforts. Volunteers are often the first ones on the scene when a hiker calls for help, he noted, and said without their help the Fish and Game Department would have to pick more of the cost.

Fish and Game officials have seen the cost of rescue increase recently now that the National Guard charges $6,500 an hour for a Blackhawk helicopter. In the past, the use of the helicopters was viewed as training for guardsmen.

The average cost of a rescue is about $2,000 but can be as high as $50,000. Fish and Game can bill for the full cost of a rescue if a person is found negligent, but Normandeau said his department collects very little of the money.

"Collecting money is a nightmare for us," he said. "The person who simply writes the check is the exception not the rule."

The committee did not make an immediate decision on the bill.