Fish and Game: We can’t pay for search and rescue alone

Laste modified: Monday, October 14, 2013
After failing 15 times in the last 20 years, the state Fish and Game Department is, once again, trying to resolve one of its biggest budget problems: finding the money – and a fairer way – to cover the $200,000 or more it spends annually on search and rescue missions.

A pair of legislative efforts under way would raise some money from hikers – who account for more than half of the search and rescue efforts – and spread the costs more broadly. Options may include tapping tourism revenue and considering user fees for paddlers, who don’t currently pay to use the state’s natural resources.

“The demand on our services is increasing,” said Maj. Kevin Jordan of Fish and Game. “We are not making it. We are looking down the road. We are in trouble if we don’t do something.”

Right now, hunters, anglers and owners of boats, snowmobiles and ATVs pick up the search and rescue tab through surcharges on their licenses, which raise about $180,000 a year.

But that group represents just 14 percent of the people rescued in the last six years, Jordan said. Most often – 57 percent of that time – the department has helped find or rescue hikers and climbers, who pay nothing, Jordan said.

“They are paying 100 percent of the cost and using 14 percent of the benefit,” Jordan said of sportsmen and the others who pay license fees to the department. “And they are getting angry.” Those license surcharges don’t go as far because the department has seen a decline in license sales.

Jordan said the department has already spent $200,000 this year on search and rescue efforts, and its busiest season – winter – is still to come.

Conservation officers have helped rescue three hikers this month. Yesterday, officers were in Conway helping look for a missing 14-year-old girl. In September, they helped find a missing 5-year-old girl. Last year, the search for a man who had lost his memory and turned up in North Carolina cost Fish and Game $20,000.

Efforts to bill those rescued have not paid off, Jordan said. The department bills only those whose carelessness led to a search and rescue, and it has been able to collect only 64 percent of what it has billed, he said.

“We are running up bills of $8,000 and $9,000, and they don’t have the ability to pay,” Jordan said. “We set up payment programs, and we try to work with them. We reduce the cost. But at the end of the day, billing is not lucrative.”

The department has long favored viewing the search and rescue effort as more than a Fish and Game program.

“A lot of us believe it’s a service of the state and the state should pay for it,” Jordan said.

Many lawmakers agree but have struggled to find a solution that garners broad support.

This session, Rep. Gene Chandler, a Bartlett Republican, sponsored a bill that would have increased the department’s search and rescue revenue three ways: a $10 surcharge on all fines issued for Fish and Game law violations, a voluntary $18 “hike safe” card for hikers and a flat fee for people rescued if they didn’t already have some sort of Fish and Game license or the hike safe card.

A search that cost $1,500 or more would have carried a $1,000 charge. Searches that ran between $1,000 and $1,499 would have carried a $600 charge. And a $350 fee would have been levied for searches costing between $500 and $999.

Less-expensive searches would have carried no cost.

Legislative researchers estimated the bill would have raised $57,200 on rescue fees and noted that 65 of the approximately 152 searches done annually between 2010 and 2012 would have raised nothing because they fell below the $999 threshold.

That bill never made it out of the House, but neither was it killed.

The House Fish and Game and Marine Resources Committee kept it for further study and hopes to put a revised version before lawmakers in January. The amended version keeps the voluntary hike safe card but drops the increased fines and charges for rescues, Chandler said.

“We haven’t solved the problem,” Chandler said. “The hiker card is a good first step. (Hikers who choose to get one) would be voluntarily contributing to the cause.” Chandler said he’d also like to see the billing efforts strengthened.

Meanwhile, a separate study commission of House and Senate members is looking more broadly at ways to make the Fish and Game budget more sustainable. Until this year, the department was self-funded, meaning it received no money from the general fund. But a looming deficit this year prompted lawmakers to give the department $1.5 million of general fund money to close the gap.

With that money came the commission charged with stabilizing the department’s budget, said Sen. Bob Odell, a Lempster Republican and chairman of the commission. The commission’s report is due Nov. 1, but Chandler said yesterday there was an effort to extend that deadline by a year.

“Our mandate,” Odell said, “is to explore making sure Fish and Game is sustainable from a revenue and spending point long term.” Search and rescue is just a part of the group’s focus, Odell said.

“We know we all benefit from a diversity in our wildlife and the abundance of our wildlife,” Odell said. “And we know that anglers and hunters have a direct impact . . . but a federal study (we saw showed) that the non-angling and non-hunting population provides a much bigger impact.”

The state’s natural resources are a draw for tourists, foliage watchers, day-trippers, home buyers and even businesses looking for a place to locate, Odell said.

Jordan agreed and said his department has supported previous bills that gave Fish and Game money from the meals and rooms tax or from the general fund. “At this point, we are not in a position where we would say no to anything,” Jordan said, speaking specifically about search and rescue. “We are in a crisis.”

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)