Vantage Point

A Line on the Budget

If you were an angler intent on hooking a state conservation department director, your best lure would be a copy of the department's current year budget document! All directors spend a fair portion of their lives on and stake their very careers on the balance sheet totals. Too little or too much cash in a department each can cause their share of problems. A director in Kansas-not me!-was fired for refusing to spend money on projects. Mostly directors are brought under scrutiny for having too little of the green, although a little green around St. Pat's Day or after a bumpy small plane flight usually is considered OK.

The Conservation Department, thanks mainly to the support of Missouri citizens, has enjoyed in recent years a good funding base and had accumulated a modest fund reserve. This has helped hold down license and permit costs for many Missourians and allowed us to offer some of the least expensive user fees in the Midwest.

Some large capital and acquisition projects, though, have been in the works and slowly winging their way through the design, appraisal and bid work necessary before construction. Another event with some significant budget consequences has been the Hancock Amendment requirement that excess monies be refunded if collections exceed the real growth rate of the state.

I won't bore you with the details, but major expenditures, such as the new Lost Valley Fish Hatchery ($19.7 million); Columbia Bottom Conservation Area land purchase ($9.1 million); and Hancock refund ($11.4 million) and others-all of which come due either in 1998 or 1999-certainly have caught my attention and are one reason I have been sleeping with our budget book and examining our fiscal bottom line.

Our income remains strong, but we need to tighten our belts to ensure that funds will be available for the above expenditures. Like the rest of state government, it is not possible for the Conservation Department to spend resources beyond its revenue. Consequently, we are reconfiguring and reducing our current budget to ensure we continue to meet our obligation in the capital investment area and provide the refunds due to the citizens of the state.

Our staff and commission worked together extremely well as a team to identify areas where we can tighten our belts or forego expenditures altogether. No area has escapedÞéÝÞºÝl areas, staÐÓg with my office, have shared the reductions. This is not an easy exercise, as many of you in the public and private sector that have faced the same dilemma realize. I have every confidence, however, that our employees will maintain the effectiveness of our programs at a level that will satisfy your needs, but we will need your patience on some projects and partnerships that will, by necessity, be delayed.

It would have been nice to have completed my first year at the Conservation Department helm without this kind of budgetary challenge, but those weren't the cards that have been dealt. On the positive side, investments like the Lost Valley Fish Hatchery and Columbia Bottom acquisition are wonderful long-term actions that will continue to pay conservation dividends long after you and I have passed from the conservation scene, and some other director struggles with those budget books at night.