Fish Commission boss offers grim financial outlook during local visit

By Tom Venesky - [email protected]
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When Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission executive director John Arway put the blame solely on legislators for the cuts that his agency will have to make, he didn’t have to look far for a response.

Arway stopped by Luzerne County Community College on Thursday to participate in a Sportsmen’s Forum organized by state Rep. Gerald Mullery. The event brought together Arway and Pennsylvania Game Commission executive director Brian Burhans. The latter didn’t mention a thing about the need for a license fee increase, but Arway was outspoken on the topic.

The PFBC hasn’t had a license fee hike since 2005. And if the state Legislature doesn’t grant a revenue hike for the agency, Arway said $2 million in cuts will be made this July. Those cuts include the closure of a state trout hatchery, resulting in a reduction of 220,000 trout from the stocking program. In addition, the PFBC plans on closing two warmwater hatcheries and cutting staff that oversees the cooperative hatchery program.

“It will be coming up in July if we don’t see the Legislature act,” Arway said.

One bill that has been introduced and is supported by Arway, Senate Bill 30, would give the PFBC the authority to set license fees. The bill has been passed by the Senate twice, only to stall in the House each time. The reason SB 30 hasn’t moved, Arway said, is because legislators have linked it to a similar bill for the Game Commission.

Mullery, D-Newport Township, is on the House Game and Fisheries Committee. He sat in the front row and listened intently to Arway’s comments. While he was sympathetic to the PFBC’s financial plight, Mullery wasn’t optimistic about a funding hike in the near future.

According to Mullery, any legislation to increase license fees for the PFBC was doomed when House Game and Fisheries Chair Keith Gillespie, R-York, made it clear it would be linked with a similar bill for the Game Commission.

“It’s unfortunate because everyone agrees the Fish and Boat Commission should set its own license fees,” Mullery said. “He’s almost setting it up for failure.”

The $21 cost of a resident adult fishing license has been in place since 2005. Arway suggested that if his agency ever does get to set its own fees, the price would increase by $6.

Arway even mentioned that other states use a portion of the state sales tax to fund their wildlife agencies, and perhaps the same could be done in Pennsylvania.

But Mullery doubted there would be support in Harrisburg for such a move and he added the Legislature has been reluctant to vote for a revenue increase for anything, except the tax on fuel which he voted against.

‘We need to change’

So what’s the solution?

Mullery said the House majority prefers the PFBC utilize its reserve fund — which is approximately $60 million — to make ends meet.

That’s not a move that Mullery supports.

“I think the reserve fund is there for a reason, and it’s not to pay day-to-day costs,” he said. “It’s to solve a problem or a massive infrastructure program.”

License sales comprise 47 percent of the PFBC’s $54 million budget. Rising pension and health care costs are forcing the agency to spend more than it takes in, which necessitates the need for cuts in lieu of a license fee increase, Arway said.

And there may be more cuts coming, especially with the agency’s trout stocking program. Kingston resident Norm Gavlick, who is on the PFBC Board of Commissioners, said sales of fishing licenses and trout stamps are declining, yet the agency continues to spend money to raise the same number of stocked trout each year — approximately 3.2 million.

“We need to stop doing that. We need to reduce that number and cut that cost,” Gavlick said. “We need to change the way we’re doing business.”

Dennis Grimes, president of the Luzerne County Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, said his organization is in favor of the PFBC having the ability to establish its own license fees, but he questioned if such a move would solve the problem.

“When you have things like personnel costs increasing 9 percent a year, you can’t do it. There’s a big problem,” Grimes said. “License fees aren’t going to do it.”

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By Tom Venesky

[email protected]

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky