December 11. 2013 9:40PM

Decision to tap F&G habitat fund explained

State House Bureau

CONCORD — The Fish and Game Department's controversial use of dedicated habitat funds to pay two biologists and another position was part of the state operating budget approved by lawmakers in June.

In order to receive state general fund money, the department had to first look within its own funds to address shortfalls, said Executive Director Glenn Normandeau.

"There shouldn't have been any surprise about it," he said. "I made it clear where we stood from the beginning."

The decision to use $140,000 from the Habitat, Game Management and Fisheries Habitat Accounts recently drew protests from sportsmen and organizations across the state.

The Fish and Game Department has traditionally been funded by money generated by license fees and permits, but the drop-off in those revenues has left the department struggling.

The department lost 15 positions in the current budget, and he said using the dedicated habitat funds was a way to retain three positions the agency needs.

Normandeau noted the biologists' time for much of their work would have been charged to the habitat accounts, but now their entire salaries and benefits will be drawn from the dedicated funds.

The work they do is federally reimbursed, he said, so that money will now go into the habitat funds instead of the fish and game fund, which pays for general department operations.

"Doing it this way picks up a portion of what is lost," Normandeau said.

He noted the controversy over the use of the habitat funds came because the N.H. Fish and Game Commission had to approve it, which it did in August.

At the time, some commission members were not pleased to use the dedicated funds for the positions and insisted it be a one-time event.

Commission Chairman Tom Hubert of Newport said there has not been significant opposition to the use of the habitat funds once people understand the funds are not being robbed, noting fish and game departments around the country are facing similar situations.

The issue was not discussed at the commission's monthly meeting Wednesday in Concord, but the topic of additional revenue to help fund the department was.

The arrangement for paying the biologists ends with the biennial budget June 30, 2015, so the department is exploring other ways to raise revenues, such as a $5 fee on hunting and fishing licenses and charges for a conservation decal.

But Normandeau said the proposals face an uphill battle in the Senate, where Senate President and former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Morse, R-Salem, has told him he will not entertain any new fees or increases.

A funding commission has been meeting to try to determine ways for the department to increase its revenue base so it can continue to do what state statutes require.

The commission will be reconstituted and meet again in January.

While Normandeau was not optimistic something would come from the commission's work, Hubert was "cautiously optimistic."

He said there is no readily available nugget to fund the department's operations, but noted the need to expand its revenue stream beyond just hunters and fishermen is apparent.

He said the department is required to oversee more than just fishing and hunting.

Normandeau said he assumes in the future there will be other sources of money for the department, or lawmakers will have to decide what the department will not do in the future.

"If we lose many more people," Normandeau said, "(lawmakers) are going to have to tell me what not to deal with."

The department had 212 employees and is now down to 178, but its responsibilities have not changed, Hubert noted.

The habitat funds are derived from license fees. For example, $2.50 from the first hunting license a person purchases each year goes into the game habitat fund, while $1 from every fishing license sold goes into the fisheries habitat fund.

The habitat accounts are used to hire seasonal or permanent employees, contractors, equipment, land conservation and other such activity but must be used to benefit the license holder through data gathering, wildlife or fisheries management and conservation.