The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission was optimistic enough about the prospect of getting a license fee increase that, during its quarterly meeting last week, the board agreed to delay $2 million in budget cuts that would’ve closed two hatcheries.
But where there’s optimism, there’s also caution.
Since last fall, the agency planned to implement $2 million in cuts by July as it faces a mounting deficit and no revenue increase via a license fee increase, which must be authorized by the state legislature. The cuts would’ve included closing two fish hatcheries, resulting in a reduction of 240,000 stocked trout.
But at Tuesday’s meeting, state Rep. Keith Gillespie (R-York) and Bryan Barbin (D-Cambria/Somerset) said they are hopeful that work on legislation for a fee increase will begin early next session.
There are several bills that would do that, but Senate Bill 30 — which would give Fish and Boat the authority to set its own license fees — appears to be at the forefront.
That bill passed the Senate in the last two sessions only to stall in the House.
Fish and Boat commissioner Norm Gavlick, of Kingston, said the simplest solution is to release SB 30 for another vote before next session.
“They can still get it done before December,” Gavlick said, adding that the motion made last year to cut $2 million still stands and was only deferred.
Gavlick said fishing license sales dropped this year, resulting in a loss of $800,000. The agency is looking at an $8 million deficit next fiscal year, he said.
Fish and Boat executive director John Arway echoed Gavlick’s hope that something could be accomplished this legislative session, noting that SB 30 and two other bills have already been introduced but not moved.
“We’re giving the legislators more time to try and come up with a solution,” Arway said. “We’re not going to give up on this session.”
To help stave off the $2 million in cuts, for now, the agency will convert Union City State Fish Hatchery in Erie County to raise freshwater mussels using funds from a legal settlement. The mussels, which are natural water filters, will be released to augment populations or establish new ones, such as in Dunkard Creek in Greene County where the populations was wiped out in 2009 due to a pollution event.
Arway said he was encouraged to see Gillepsie attend Tuesday’s meeting and commit toward finding a solution for the agency’s revenue issues.
He added that as a result of deferring the cuts, there will be no changes to trout stocking in 2019.
“There will be no impact on the size or number of locations stocked for next year,” Arway said.
Other moves that were approved at the PFBC meeting to help recoup some of the $2 million in deferred cuts include the implementation of several permits and revenue enhancements. The moves are projected to generate $1.2 million annually, beginning in fiscal year 2018-19.
These enhancements include the introduction of four voluntary permits: a habitat conservation improvement permit; a muskie permit; a wild trout and enhanced waters permit; and a bass permit. The Commission also approved the establishment of a cover price for the annual Summary of Fishing Regulations and Laws publication, and a Property Use and Entrance Permit, for those members of the public not holding a valid fishing license, launch permit or boat registration.
Commissioners also voted to approve proposed rulemaking to increase permit fees for Scientific Collectors’ Permits and permit fees for Triploid Grass Carp, Snapping Turtles, Venomous Snakes and Organized Reptile and Amphibian Hunts. These proposed increases in permit fees are in line with U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index (CPI) tool that is based on annual inflation rates. Proposed increases are from $5 to $30 depending on the permit. Some of these permits have not been increased since 2008.
The Board also approved increases in seasonal mooring slip fees at Walnut Creek Marina. Rates for some boats at the marina were last increased in 2011, with all other boats last impacted in 2009. Beginning in 2019, slip rates for boats 23 feet in length and less will be $775 annually, and slip rates for boats greater than 23 feet in length will be $1,050. The Commission will publish these rate changes as a notice in the Pennsylvania Bulletin.
Additionally, the Board was briefed on the executive director’s intent to increase the fee for Commission-issued launch permits, beginning in Jan. 1, 2019, to bring the fee in alignment with those assessed by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Gavlick said there other potential revenue opportunities, such as the creation of a water use tax and directing a portion of sales tax to the PFBC. Neither proposal has been implemented, but both Gavlick and Arway said they would be beneficial to the agency.
“We don’t get any general fund money, yet the sale of fishing and boating-related items generates sales tax money,” Gavlick said. “We collect sales tax for things we sell and produce, yet we have to turn it over to the state.”
Arway said the agency is paid $40,000 to collect sales taxes each year, and as a result turns over between $3.5 and $5 million to the state, annually.
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky