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DNR adjusts to lean budget

ATLANTA --- Tuition increases, prison crowding and teacher furloughs make headlines when the large state agencies cope with budget cuts, but every corner of state government has to adjust, most in quiet ways that don't garner news coverage.

The Department of Natural Resources is one such agency. At a recent board meeting, just one reporter was present. And the board's approval of a staggering 34-percent reduction in spending from the 2008 peak sailed through without debate.

Despite the magnitude of the cut, there was no press release, no legislator statement, no protest on the Capitol steps.

Many of the senior staff of the department are new, having taken their posts in the last 18 months or less, including Commissioner Chris Clark and several division heads. With the advice of consultants working for free, Clark is reorganizing to re-institute proper financial controls, and he is trying to change the culture among the employees.

One way is to encourage them to raise questions about possible financial improprieties. Another is to adapt to what he calls the "new normal" of lean budgets, a challenge faced by all state agencies.

In a usual period of belt tightening, government employees hunker down. They postpone maintenance, trips and training until the budget crisis passes. Then, it's back to business as usual.

Agency heads are busy telling their employees the money won't be flowing again any time soon. Maintenance can't be postponed forever. One-time accounting tricks aren't enough.

DNR has shed 450 positions and expects to lose more with a 10 percent smaller budget in the coming fiscal year. If that's the level of appropriations the legislature approves next year, it will leave big divots in all the department's divisions. Compared to the peak spending in 2008, the administrative division will be down 11 percent, wildlife resources off 33 percent, historic preservation off 39 percent, parks and historic sites off 48 percent, and coastal resources down a whopping 52 percent.

Clark says he's tried to minimize the changes that the public might notice. Park fees have gone up from $3 to $5, and volunteers have been asked to keep up hiking trails and other maintenance staff used to do. But no state parks, fish hatcheries or public fishing areas have closed.

The department is looking for other sources besides tax appropriations. It is updating the car tags it sells to raise money for various programs, such as nongame wildlife management. The parks division has a goal to go from generating 68 percent of its operating funds to 75 percent with better marketing, management and pricing of its lodges and amenities.

(Walter Jones can be reached at or (404) 589-8424.)

Web posted on Thursday, September 02, 2010

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