The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is going broke.
IDNR director Marc Miller has decided he’s not going to sit by idly and watch that happen. Miller appeared at John A. Logan College in early February to discuss the agency’s reach and the consequences of failing to find a source of sustainable funding.
Currently, IDNR is pinning hopes on a funding bill being put together by Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley. However, Miller said it will take an engaged citizenry to secure the necessary funding.
“Our citizens, the people who care about the work we do, have to use their voice and get engaged in the process,” Miller said. “Work with groups so you can amplify your voices and advocate for a sustainable solution for the agency. After three years I can tell you, our leadership team can work as hard as we can, our DNR employees can work themselves ragged and tired, but unless citizens are going to be there for the agency, we’re never going to get anywhere.
“We’ve made great progress. We’ve turned the agency around, but we need to have resources. The only way that is going to happen is if people like you come out to a talk like this and go out and do something like this. The only way to protect it in the future is to stay engaged.”
Much of Miller’s presentation centered around the varied duties of the agency.
“The thing I want to underscore, all the things we do, mines and minerals, parks, fishing, hunting, has a $32 billion impact every year on the state’s economy,” he said. “That’s enough to support 90,000 jobs. We do that with very little fanfare and very little recognition.
“We need to come out of our shell and start telling people about those kinds of things.”
Miller pointed out that Conservation Police Officers rescued nearly 1,000 people from their homes during last year’s spring flooding. He noted the agency helped private citizens develop conservation plans for 500,000 acres of land last year. The IDNR oversees mine permitting and inspection and studies environmental planning for commercial developments.
“We have a lot of things we’re trying to do all the time, and it’s not just hunting, fishing and camping,” he said. “That also means we need to have more funding than hunting, fishing and camping. Fishing, hunting and camping are the things we actually collect money for. Everything else we essentially do for free on the general revenue taxpayer dollars.”
And, funding is the critical issue for the agency.
In addition to licensing and fees, IDNR receives funds from two sources: general revenue as appropriated by the general assembly and federal dollars. Since 2002, the general revenue funds have dropped from $102 million to $48.9 million for this fiscal year.
Sixty-six percent of the agency’s funds are generated by fees and licenses, 21 percent by general revenue funds and 13 percent by federal funds.
“For this fiscal year, the governor introduced to the legislature a general revenue budget of $54.6 million,” Miller said. “It would have given us a full head count, given us a little flexibility to move people from other state funds back to general funds, given us a chance at sustainability.
“Unfortunately, the general assembly gave us the $48.9 number, which is a $5.7 million reduction, and it didn’t give us the ability to fund the people we have on board. We’re going to try to cope with that. When people leave or retire, we’re going to have to let them go and not replace them.”
IDNR is already using the vast majority of its funds just to pay personnel.
“We have cut every single thing we can; travel, communication, everything,” Miller said. “We’re now at the point where we’ve operationalized every possible thing. A little bit goes to grants and there are a few improvements. Our money is going to people. Everything else has been sliced down to small, small slivers. We are paying for people.”
The situation became more dire when discussions of fiscal year 2013 rolled around. IDNR was told to expect a 10 percent cut. Several of the agency’s funds are, or will soon be, in the red.
“We need some help,” Miller said.
The lack of funding will become more and more noticeable at state parks. He used Illinois Beach State Park as an example. The park has 2 million visitors a year. At one time, the park had a staff of 26. It is now operating with five staffers.
“The visits to those state parks puts $1 billion into our economy each year,” Miller said. “That’s enough to support 8,500 jobs. It’s really important that we fund state parks and keep them going so people will utilize them.
“Not just for the fact that we enjoy them, but because they are an economic engine. If we have to take a 10 percent cut, we’re going to see a loss of our seasonal workers, which means our state parks aren’t going to be clean or mowed. We’ll try to do our best to focus on the camping so we can keep people happy, but you’re going to see a noticeable difference in the maintenance. It will be no fault of the people that work for us. It will be because we don’t have the resources.”
Miller said the parks are already suffering from neglect. There are roofs, sewage treatment plants, trails and other facilities that haven’t been maintained. He noted the Giant City State Park water tower is eight years overdue for maintenance. More than 220 agency vehicles have more than 150,000 miles on them.
“The expenditures are exceeding revenues,” Miller said. “This is deficit spending. We’re drawing from the savings account to get current bills paid.”
The lack of funding will create other difficulties.
Retirements have resulted in key positions remaining open. As a result, IDNR is losing people who write grants or perform services that result in matching funds from the federal government. The budget shortfalls also make it impractical to acquire more land when current facilities are deteriorating.
The potential 10 percent cutback will hamstring the Realty and Environmental Planning Division.
“Every year this section quietly reviewed 22,000 economic development projects,” Miller said. “They have to review and look for threatened and endangered species, natural areas, wetlands. If they don’t do that work, everything slows down and new projects won’t happen. That means jobs don’t happen.
“If we don’t have the resources, it will be harder to put people to work.”
And, further cuts could result in closure of satellite branches of the Illinois State Museum, including the Rend Lake Artisans Center.
“It’s going to be very difficult to keep those smaller museums open,” Miller said. “We’ll have to lay off professional and technical staff. Many of these people go out and write their own grants to pay for things. With less of them around, our ability to bring in money will diminish.”
For these reasons, Miller is hoping Mautino can cobble together a coalition and get a funding bill through the legislature.
“What we are working towards is a sustainable solution,” he said. “Instead of having us take cuts year after year and be on this rollercoaster,we want to get to that vision of having revenues for ourselves that we can count on and plan. Plan and to be able to do the programs we’re supposed to do for the public and to have that economic impact for our economy, our state and our citizens.
“That’s the vision of where we need to go.”