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December 09. 2013 7:41PM

Fish & Game on defensive over spending $140K in dedicated funds on salaries

Members of the state's Fish and Game Commission are defending a decision to allow the use of dedicated habitat funds to cover the salaries of two employees.

The decision to use $140,000 from the state's Habitat, Game Management and Fisheries Habitat Accounts to pay for two biologist positions was approved in a unanimous vote this fall, drawing protests from sportsmen and organizations across the state.

"We were very adamant that this was a one-time thing," Fish and Game Commission Vice Chairman David Patch of Glen said. "There have already been several ideas on raising revenue to replace the monies taken from the funds."

Those ideas include a proposed $5 increase to license fees to replenish the fund. Patch said further discussion on the options is expected at the commission's meeting Wednesday at 1 p.m. at the Fish and Game offices, 11 Hazen Drive in Concord.

Patch said he can understand sportsmen are concerned about the decision to tap the funds.

"Quite frankly, there were members of the commission that weren't happy with using dedicated funds," he said. "This wasn't a move we made without a great deal of debate, but in the end we felt the effect the loss of these employees on the services provided by the department was too great not to take this action."

Dedicated funds are derived from fees paid by people to cover costs associated with certain services they benefit from or activities they participate in. Money in the state's Habitat, Game Management and Fisheries Habitat Account comes from the purchase of licenses by hunters and fishermen. A habitat fee, $2.50, comes from the first hunting license an individual purchases each year — fees are not tacked onto additional licenses purchased that same year. The state's Fish and Game website says the habitat fee is "dedicated solely to funding wildlife habitat management and protection."

The Fisheries Habitat Account gets $1 for every fishing license sold. The account can be used for many purposes such as hiring seasonal or permanent employees, contractors, equipment, land conservation, etc., and must always be used for the benefit of anglers through the assessment, management and conservation of fisheries habitats.

While uses for these funds are clearly spelled out, commissioners say they can legally be used to cover salaries.

"The Legislature gave us the legal authority to use them last summer when it passed HB2," Fish and Game Commission Chairman Tom Hubert said.

After HB2 was signed into law, Fish and Game Department Executive Director Glen Normandeau requested in August that funds be used to cover two salaried positions — a wildlife biologist and an aquatic biologist.

"I really had no choice," said Normandeau. "These positions are critical in getting work on the ground done."

Hubert said: "The executive director made the argument that it was becoming increasingly difficult to do everything the public expects from the department with less staff. Using the funds in this way was not our first choice, but given the dire consequences, we felt it was necessary to do at this time."

"Funding these positions is not going to bankrupt these accounts," said Jason Smith, chief of the state's Inland Fisheries Division, who added the positions "will more than pay for themselves by leveraging other sources of funds to contribute to high-priority projects. Without this staff, the ability to coordinate these additional funding sources will be lost."

Bill Carney, a former Fish and Game commissioner, said he's hearing from people on the issue.

"I've got calls and letters from legislators regarding the habitat fund monies being used to fund positions," Carney said. "There are a lot of upset people."

pfeely@unionleader.com


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