Tuesday, February 1, 2011

UPDATED ODNR retirees, others worried about their and Department's future

With state government starting to churn with new legislative and executive grease, the speed at which the gearing shifts is looking to increase.

Of concern to at least some retired Ohio Department of Natural Resources employees is the fear is that the tempo may make their lives just so much road kill.

Not only are these former Natural Resources staffers concerned about their own futures but what may happen to the agency as well.

Then too, the Natural Resources Department has sent out a general invitation for people to submit applications for the position of chief of the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

As for the retirees, their worries may very well be justified. Documents indicate that the employee/employer contributions to state pensions and retiree health insurance may go up as well as requiring greater employee contributions to the same funds instead of the money coming from tax-supported sources.

Other troubling points suggest “uniformity” in the percentage of health insurance costs paid by old and new retirees.

The practice of so-called “double-dipping” would be prohibited except for “extraordinary, high-need situations.”

The “Redesigning Ohio Report” also appears to suggest reducing the number of state pension systems “to capture administrative savings.”

As for the consolidation of the Natural Resource Department, that issue was first brought to the front last year in the legislature. Under this scheme would be created a Department of Resource Protection with a then described Division of Land that would include many of the present ODNR functions. Among them would be Wildlife, Watercraft, Parks and Recreation and Forestry.

Among other units would be those associated with farmland preservation, specialty crop support, county agricultural societies and awards, and “the plant industry.”
Wildlife and Watercraft would be divided even further. Its law enforcement officers - county wildlife officers - would fall under a “Resource Quality Assurance Division” that likewise would include various other entities.

Among them would be Utility Radiological Safety, Engineering Activities, Food and Drug Safety, Ohio Air Quality Development Authority, licensing and permitting; or 12 sub-divisions in all.

A third division would be the Division of Public Awareness that would include resource conservation activities (fish and wildlife management?), pollution prevention, recycling and litter control, science advisory programs, seven segments in all.

A forth sub-division would be called Division of Grant and Disbursements. This agency would be responsible for administering and distributing federal and state environmental and agricultural grants.

It begs, however, an answer as to whether such oversight would include federal money obtained from the tax on fishing and hunting equipment and required by law for use only on related projects and programs.

Scott Zody, assistant director for the Natural Resources Department, said reconfiguring agencies or consolidations “will be looked at” not only with the up-coming two-year operating budget and beyond.

“I think the general position at this point that we’re not necessarily wedded to one idea or another and all are up for consideration,” Zody said.

“At the same time there’s been a lot of attention to local government reform as well, as was the example in Cuyahoga County which started the conversation.”

Zody said a very serious need exists to look at the whole spectrum of government restructuring.

“And the ODNR is just one piece of that,” Zody said.

But, Zody says as well, the state needs to look at ways to make government more efficient and improve customer service.

“Obviously you’re going to hear a lot of concerns from stake holders and we have to be sensitive to Wildlife and Watercraft and that their funds are used for those lawful purposes,” Zody said. “And we have heard from interests from both of those sides.”

If anyone is interested in becoming a part of this potential hornet’s nest of legislative and executive meddling and control they can apply for the current - maybe soon to be extinct - job as Wildlife Division chief. See www.careers.ohio.gov. for details.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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