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January 16, 2008

Legislator: Audit won't solve Fish and Game Department's woes

An audit of the state Fish and Game Department released yesterday recommends a name change, cutting vehicle expenses and charging for saltwater fishing licenses.

While most legislators hadn't read the 160-page report yet, state Rep. Bob L'Heureux, R-Merrimack, an 18-year veteran of the House Fish and Game Committee, said that at first glance it doesn't appear to go far enough in addressing the department's financial woes.

"That really puzzles me," he said.

L'Heureux said the audit fails to consider additional state funding for the department. Instead, it urges the Legislature to revisit money-raising ideas shot down last year. Those include requiring a license for saltwater fishing and sticker fees for canoes and kayaks.

The audit also suggested the Legislature broaden a law allowing the department to charge missing people for the cost of their rescues. People who are rescued must have acted "recklessly" to be charged. The audit suggests the Legislature broaden the law to apply to those who were "negligent."

Between 2002 and 2007, the department conducted 822 search-and-rescue missions at a cost of $1.5 million. The department billed five of those rescued for reckless behavior, and collected about $7,600.

L'Heureux said he also is disappointed the audit fails to recommend changing the way Fish and Game funds employee retirement.

Fish and Game is the only department that pays for its own retirement benefits, and this needs to change, he said. The state funds retirement for employees of all other departments and agencies through its general fund.

State lawmakers hoped the audit would go a long way toward determining the future of the largely self-funded department, which has been plagued by rising operating and retirement expenses and decreasing revenues due to fewer people buying hunting licenses.

Fish and Game acting Executive Director Donald Clarke said his department agrees at least in part with 90 percent of the audit, which was carried out by the Office of the Legislative Budget Assistant.

"I feel good about the report," said Clarke, a seven-year veteran of the Fish and Game Commission, who took the helm when Lee Perry retired in August.

An audit summary said Fish and Game's name needs to change to reflect its growing work protecting wildlife species and habitats. Especially since it is now serving fewer hunters.

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