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State parks face wave of retirements

June 06, 2012 at 12:22 PM

The State Journal-Register

A wave of retirements at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources could result in no full-time employees at some parks.

DNR confirmed Tuesday that 80 of the department’s 1,100 employees have filed notices of their intention to retire.

“There are some sites that if they were down to one or two people, if they decide to file for retirement, … then there would be nobody there,” DNR spokesman Chris McCloud said.

However, McCloud said the department is still deciding what it will do in the event of those retirements.

“There’s still some research to be done there,” McCloud said.  “I don’t know that (a park) necessarily has to close.  There are sites that don’t have somebody there 24-7 and the public is still welcome to come in.  And we obviously still have conservation police who patrol the areas.”

Employee drain

The drain of DNR employees could become worse by year’s end.

Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, has worked closely with DNR for months to develop a long-term funding plan for the agency.  He said he understands that as many as 336 employees will be eligible to retire by the end of 2012, nearly one-third of the department’s workforce.  At one time, about 2,400 people worked at DNR.

Not all of those workers are expected to retire, but if most of them do, Mautino said, the department could be responsible for $3 million to $5 million in payments for unused vacation time and other retirement costs.

“That will cause some strain on their budget,” Mautino said.  “It makes rehiring people to fill those spots more difficult.

McCloud said he could not immediately verify Mautino’s numbers.

The state budget passed by lawmakers last week will cut $5 million from DNR’s share of general state taxes.  At the same time, a bill that would have raised fees to help pay for park improvements and DNR operations did not make it out of the General Assembly.

McCloud declined to speculate on whether the drop in revenue will mean reduced hours or even some park closures.

“There will be some tough choices if we don’t get some new revenue, but we’re not going to push the panic button here,” he said. “We think there’s going to be another chance to put this forward.”

Fee hikes

Mautino sponsored Senate Bill 1566, which would raise 19 different fees to help pay for state parks.  The fees would raise an estimated $32 million annually.

The bulk of that money—$22 million – would come from a $2 increase in license plate fees.  If enacted, the cost of license plates for cars would go from $99 to $101.

One dollar of the hike (roughly $11 million a year) would be earmarked to pay for DNR operating costs. The other $1 would help the agency catch up with deferred maintenance at state parks

The bill passed the House on a 61-56 vote Thursday, the last scheduled day of the session.

However, it did not pass the Senate because of a quirk in timing.  The bill got 33 “yes” votes, normally enough to pass legislation.  But because the Senate didn’t take up the bill until after midnight Thursday, the measure needed 36 votes.

Mautino said he will try again to pass the fee increase bill, either this summer or during the fall veto session.

“It would have been preferable if I could have gotten it done (last week),” he said.  “I’m not worried about getting the votes.  We’ll be fine.”

Doug Finke can be reached at 788-1527.

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