Wisconsin warden force feeling budget crunch

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Warden force feels state budget crunch.

Sled patrols to be cut back.

By Dean Bortz, Wisconsin Outdoor News

Madison — For the first time ever, DNR field wardens were ordered to take two days off during the gun deer season because of budget shortages.
The DNR law enforcement budget didn’t have enough money to cover fuel, mileage and overtime, according to DNR chief warden Tom Harelson.
The news doesn’t get much better — Harelson has already told wardens they’ll have to cut back on patrolling snowmobile trails this winter.

“Seeing as how they can’t drive anywhere, they’ll have to sit at trail crossings to check riders,” Harelson said. “We drove a lot of miles this fall and we’ll have to save up miles for the spring fish spawn and fishing season.”

On Dec. 5, Harelson gave the Natural Resources Board his report on the deer gun season. He said that arrests were down by 13 percent (1,340 arrests) from 2000, and are at the lowest level since 1976. While Harelson attributed some of the decrease to warmer weather at that time, he also hinted that budget constraints cut back patrols.

On Dec. 19, Harelson acknowledged that the Bureau of Law Enforcement tried to keep its budget problems low key during the hunting seasons so some people might be less inclined to stretch the law.

That cat’s out of the bag now, though. Harelson aired his budget concerns before the Joint Finance Committee last month in asking for emergency funding to the tune of $386,500. That money won’t help increase field patrols, however. Harelson needs that money to hire and train 12 warden recruits beginning this month. The training will take most of this year.

To make matters worse, Harelson ended up hiring just 12 of the 23 wardens he needs to replace retiring officers.

The DNR has hired 67 recruits (including this year’s 12) in the past five years, but the Bureau faces two more big years of retirements. If the DNR can’t hire wardens in 2002 and 2003, the bureau of Law Enforcement will again be understaffed in 2004.
Just how bad is it? Harelson said the bureau is $1.6 million short of what it needs.

To make up the shortfall, Harelson is:

• cutting field warden budgets by $2,500 per warden (a reduction of about 8,065 miles per warden for the rest of the fiscal year).
• cutting overtime funding by 25 percent (21,360 hours).
• cutting by 50 percent the special wardens (assistant wardens). Permanent wardens will now have to work together and ride in one vehicle to save miles.
• cutting airplane flights used to catch shiners, fish trappers, cabin shooters and waterfowl baiters by 90 percent.

“Our budgets are mostly salaries and operating expenses, such as vehicles, fuel, radios and phone calls. Shortfalls really hurt. It’s not like we can decide not to build a road or campground,” said Harelson, who is feeling the pinch himself. He said wardens’ two-way truck radios are more than 12 years old and are nearly obsolete. He doesn’t have money to buy new radios and is just about out of old units that can be cannibalized to keep other units operating. “When the next radio goes down, mine is coming out of my truck and going to a field warden.”
Harelson said the bureau usually cuts the central office staff first in budget shortfalls.

“The only reason we exist is to support the field. We cut the central office first, but this time we had to make cuts in the field, too.”

Harelson has canceled some training sessions for veteran wardens, along with meetings, out-of-state travel and this year’s statewide warden conference.
Right now, wardens are doing only limited patrolling. They are saving their time and miles to respond primarily to complaints called in by citizens.

One legislator isn’t convinced the DNR doesn’t have money to operate its warden force.

“We can’t cut back during deer season, we can’t cut back on hiring — we have wardens retiring. The money is coming in, but we have to find out where it’s going,” said Rep. DuWayne Johnsrud (R-Eastman), chairman of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee.

“This is what I’ve been talking about — the cry about where does the money go when you buy a license. Every dollar that goes to pay some administrative cost, now about 18 percent of the DNR budget, we have to ask — is it better spent in the field than in the central office? The money is there; it just has to get back to where it belongs. Say we reduced overhead to 5 to 6 percent — that would be a savings of about $8 million.

“But no, the DNR philosophy is to hit you where it hurts — like cutting the football program in a school budget,” Johnsrud said.  
 
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