Saturday, April 22, 2017

EXTENSIVE UPDATES/ODNR nixes resident license jumps-Ohio House hits non-residents

Reader, please note - This is a fast-breaking news story and further additions and changes are expected. Please return periodically for any updates, including a lengthy statement made today (April 25th) by Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director James Zehringer. The latest update was performed at 7:10 p.m., April 25th.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has pulled the plug on any increases to hunting and fishing license fees for residents.

Non-residents are a different matter as the Natural Resources Department is now seeking to clarify its clarification.

And the Ohio General Assembly's House side of things has inserted language in HB 49 that would increase the cost of a non-resident deer permit from the present $24 (same as for Ohio residents) to $250.

Meanwhile, the same proposal would boast the cost of a non-resident turkey tag - either spring or fall - from the existing $24 to $75.

 Last year the Wildlife Division issued 51,268 either-sex deer tags to non-residents and 3,205 antlerless-only deer tags to non-residents.

 Also, the Wildlife Division issued 3,975 spring turkey tags to non-residents and another 1,118 fall turkey tags to non-residents.

The budget bill license fee amendment proposal's chief sponsor is Representative Johnathan Dever, R-Madeira.

For now Deaver’s proposal meets with the Natural Resources Department’s approval.

“(The) ODNR has supported adjusted fees on non-resident participants in the past and supports the effort once again, as this change would align Ohio’s fees more closely with the non-resident fee structures of other states,” said Matt Eiselstein, the agency’s designated spokesman on the subject of any potential license fee increase to either residents or non-residents.

The Columbus-based Sportsman’s Alliance says while it appreciates the fee increase proposal for non-resident hunters it doesn’t go far enough to plugging the Wildlife Division’s emerging fiscal leaks.

(At the tag of this blog is the official position on the subject by Natural Resources Director James Zehringer.)

Even so, some critics are arguing that the Department pulled the rug out from under the Wildlife Division in general and Ray Petering in particular. That belief is focused on the chief being on the record as stating that his agency is “…doing 2017 programs on 2004 money.”

And putting the brakes on the Wildlife Division and its employees officially backing any license fee increase was what the Natural Resources Department said in a short, terse e-mail note to this writer and one other reporter. That short missive reads:


“At this time, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife does not support a license fee increase on Ohio’s hunters and anglers. While we appreciate the support of our sportsmen, we are seeking efficiencies and savings within the Department that will result in a higher level of service, without raising license fees.”


The Departmental communiqué bears the sender as being Petering but includes the notation that any further contact be directed to Natural Resources agency spokesman Matt Eiselstein.


For his part Eiselstein notes that his agency is “always seeking opportunities to better utilize our resources, and that does include understanding the value of our landholdings.”


That exploration of knowing the value of Department-owned lands and structures includes the Wildlife Division’s District One Headquarters complex in Columbus.


In a further statement to the “Ohio Outdoor News,” Eiselstein says the Natural Resources Department has had an appraisal of D-1 performed but does mention any actual goal of channeling the work of the 24-person staff there to Fountain Square.


 “(The) ODNR conducts between 30 to 50 official appraisals annually, and these figures do not include the dozens of property valuations conducted by staff each year,” Eiselstein said.


 “The position of the department is that we need to look at fiscally responsible ways to achieve our goals before we ask Ohio’s sportsmen and women to pay more for hunting and fishing opportunities,” Eiselstein said.


Those efforts have included fact-finding in regard to office space and property values, including D-1, says Eiselstein said in a second electronically sent memo on the subject.


“The appraisal is an initial step in determining the value of an asset. Any discussion at this point regarding plans for the property beyond determining and examining its value would be premature, as no course of action has been determined,” Eiselstein said.


Still, reports are suggesting that the Wildlife Division will move D-1 to Fountain Square with the expectation that it will pay the Department an annual rental fee of up to $500,000.


However, in a third round of notations the Natural Resources Department is now pulling back from its back-stepping in regards to whether to increase non-resident fishing and hunting license fees.

Eislstein noted to this writer in an April 25th electronic exchange that his statement of no fee increases was a reference to "Ohio's sportsmen and women..."

"Non-resident fees are being considered separately, and this does not have to be a both or neither scenario," Eislstein said in his latest electronic posting.

All of this twisting and turning on the increasingly complex matter follows on the heels of the April 14th “Ohio Outdoor News” story “Ohio groups push on for license hike.”

 In that article its author and publication editor Mike Moore pointed out how the Columbus-based Sportsmen’s Alliance had teamed with approximately two dozen other Ohio-related or -based sportsmen and conservation groups in backing license fee increases for hunters and anglers.

This fee jump was especially aimed at non-resident deer hunters. The ad hoc assembly pointed out that Ohio charges the least expensive non-resident deer-hunting fee package of “…any quality white-tailed deer hunting state in the country…” citing a figure of $149 while the average for such states is $393.

 In the “Ohio Outdoor News” article, Petering is quoted as illustrating the importance of periodic license fee augmentation when he referenced the 2017 and 2004 comparison with “…that’s easy for the average person to wrap their head around.”

“You’re not keeping pace with inflation let alone everything else,” Petering is quoted as saying.

 Petering further said that such fee increases are of the kind typically and often supported by those who pay the bills: Ohio’s hunters and anglers.

 “They basically said ‘we want these types of agencies to exist and we’ll pay money for it,’” Petering also said in the article, continuing, “This is in keeping with a long-term tradition and legacy here.”

 Yet - in effect - those comments by Petering need to be taken more broadly since the chief never actually said the Wildlife Division has ever pushed “for more money,” Eiselstein says too.

Consequently, Eiselstein says he doesn’t believe that Petering’s comments “or any subsequent statements indicate a reversal of our position.”

Even so, backing the idea of license fee increases – and thus supporting Petering’s former-proposal endorsement – were all six of the current members comprising the eight-member Ohio Wildlife Council.

 The two other Wildlife Council members saw their terms expire at the end of March, and at the time of this writing neither person had either been reappointed nor replacements named.

 The six document signees penned a letter to Ohio Governor John Kasich, Natural Resources Director James Zehringer and members of the Ohio General Assembly that buttresses their collective appeal for license fee increases.

 “We have grown increasingly concerned about the ability of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources / Division of Wildlife to fulfill its mission to the satisfaction of the citizens of Ohio,” the memorandum reads. 

“While other government agencies are able to absorb cost increases by seeking additional revenue from  the general tax payer coffers, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources / Ohio Division of Wildlife is  funded by user fees that have not been adjusted since 2003, the longest stretch in the agency’s history.”

As such, the signers said the state’s hunters and anglers are taking note of the several counties “where wildlife officers are no longer present because the agency lacks the funds to hold a cadet class to replace retiring officers.”

 Similarly, the document’s six signing members state, “Wildlife production areas are more often unmanaged prior to key hunting seasons” while “fish stocking programs have decreased over this same period.”

In concluding their declaration of support for license fee increases the six Wildlife Council members stated “For these reasons, the Ohio Wildlife Council is calling on you Governor Kasich and the Ohio General Assembly to support these very modest increases that would be paid entirely by those who use these Resources.”

 Neither are others buying into what they believe is an attempt by the Natural Resources Department to reign in Petering’s once strong support for license fee increases of all kinds.

Sportsman’s Alliance CEO and President Evan Heisinkveld said his – and 29 other outdoors and conservation organizations “appreciate the House Finance Committee's decision to include Representative Dever's non-resident fee increase in the budget bill.”

“It is a major step in the right direction,” said Evan Heusinkveld. “However, we believe that a modest increase in resident fees is also necessary to address the funding crisis of the Division of Wildlife. Ohio's sportsmen and women are asking for this increase in their own user fees because they understand the nexus between conservation programs and hunting license fees.”

Since the need for additional funding is “abundantly clear,” Hesusinkveld also says, the turn-about only “makes the Department’s position not only confusing, given its past support, but unsatisfactory as well.”

Thus, while fiscal responsibility and efficiency are vital, “serving the paying public and quality is even more important,” Heusinkveld said as well.

 “Governor Kasich spoke of his support for a fee increase on non-residents in 2014 at a sportsmen’s reception at the Governor’s mansion while Natural Resources Department Director Zehringer testified in support of a non-resident fee increase before the legislature in 2015,” Heusinkveld said.

And efforts at being fiscally responsible and equally fiscally fair are what helped motivate Ohio Wildlife Council member/secretary Thomas A. Vorisek of Gahanna to back the fee increase concept and plant his name to the group’s declaration of support.

“Yes, I am disappointed and confused,” Vorisek said in a telephone interview about the Department-ordered 180-degree turn-about. “Is it really too much to ask that we have a wildlife officer in every county?”

 Vorisek then highlighted how one of the main thrusts of the fee increase idea was directed at the 40,000 or so non-resident deer hunters, who are enjoying a sweet bargain and who also have in many instances leased land that shuts out Ohio resident hunters.

 Asked then if he were concerned that his “disappointment” over the Natural Resources Department’s inverted stance regarding a unified license fee proposal will cost him reappointment to the Wildlife Council, Vorisek quickly responded “no.”

His appointment to the Council expires January 2018.

“I’m never concerned about the consequences of doing the right thing,” Vorisek said.

The following is the April 25th unedited statement made by Ohio Natural Resources Director James Zehringer regarding proposed license fee increases:

“Ohioans who enjoy hunting, fishing and trapping face a difficult challenge: how to manage our resources and preserve our heritage in a period of declining participation. We share a commitment to conserve and improve the state’s fish and wildlife resources in a sustainable way, even as fewer Ohioans choose to hunt, fish and trap every year.  Ohio sportsmen and women share a common goal and common values.  The challenge is how best to achieve our shared goals.

“As Director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), and as a lifelong conservationist, I share these commitments and concerns.  I fully support the statutory role given to ODNR’s Division of Wildlife, but we must also balance competing demands and priorities to set a course that succeeds long term.

“When discussing hunting and fishing license fees, it would be easy to maximize revenue and raise rates based on what the market will bear in the short term.  But declining participation rates, and the sustainability of the model, must be part of the conversation.

“Raising fees on Ohioans should be the last option not the first.  At ODNR we remain committed to finding more effective and efficient ways to manage the state’s resources. We need to make tough choices to keep costs down and responsibly manage the funds Ohioans have entrusted to us. 

- By Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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