Manatee money won't go extinct
Cutting 90 officers from the wildlife commission staff is unlikely, Crist says.
By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 15, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG - While acknowledging the need to pare back government spending, Gov. Charlie Crist said Friday he opposes cutting 90 officers from the state wildlife commission staff.
"I don't anticipate making those cuts," he said. "I don't think you're going to see any cuts to law enforcement anywhere."
Facing a billion-dollar budget shortfall, Crist had ordered all state agencies to find ways to cut 10 percent of their spending. So the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission proposed extensive cuts not only to the division that patrols for speeding boaters in manatee protection zones but also to a program that rescues and rehabilitates injured manatees.
Despite those proposed cuts, the wildlife commission had been ready to vote to take manatees off the state's endangered list. But earlier this week Crist urged the commissioners to delay the vote, so they did.
Then, while the commission was going over its budget at the close of a three-day meeting in St. Petersburg, Crist stopped by, strolling in as a playful staffer played the ominous theme from Jaws.
Crist told the commissioners that they run his favorite state agency and "what you do is in my heart. ... I want to specifically thank you for your protection of the manatee."
Then he went on to say that, after reviewing the proposed cuts to law enforcement, "I don't think that's going to end up being the case" because his top priority is public safety. "I think this agency is going to be in great shape."
The wildlife commission has 1,875 full-time employees to protect and manage more than 500 species of fish and wildlife. Last year its budget topped $261-million. The commission's staff had recommended cutting $4-million from its $86-million law enforcement budget, eliminating 90 officers.
Over the past year the wildlife agency's 700 officers issued more than 37,000 citations, 2,790 of them given to boaters for violating the rules in manatee zones. They rescued 1,051 people.
In 2006 they spent more than 50,000 hours patrolling the state's waterways enforcing manatee protection rules. During that time, the number of boats registered in Florida topped 1-million.
Despite the agency's patrols, 86 manatees were killed by boats in 2006, the second highest number since the agency began keeping statistics in the 1970s. As of July 31, boats had killed 48 manatees this year.
Manatee patrols would be just one casualty of severe cuts to the law enforcement staff of the wildlife commission. Wildlife officers also search for missing boaters, arrest poachers, stop speeders driving through panther habitat, ticket anglers who violate fishing rules and investigate boating accidents.
Florida leads the nation in fatal boating accidents, with 69 last year and 80 the year before.
A study last year by the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that the state agency is already understaffed. The association said the commission needs at least 1,000 wildlife officers to do its job properly, and the ideal number would be 1,500 to 2,000.
Hearing Crist's news was "fantastic," said Col. Julie Jones, who heads up the wildlife commission's law enforcement division.
"We're grateful he recognized the contribution across the board that our officers make."
Meanwhile officials from both the Save the Manatee Club and the Marine Industries Association - two groups that rarely see eye to eye - pledged to work together on persuading the Legislature to steer some money from boat fuel taxes to the wildlife agency's law enforcement funding. Currently most of that money goes to pay for road-building.
In addition to curtailing its law enforcement patrols, the wildlife agency also had proposed cutting a $2-million program that rescues and rehabilitates injured manatees at Lowry Park Zoo, Sea World and the Miami Seaquarium. So far more than 900 manatees have been rescued, and about three-fourths returned to the wild, said Pat Rose of the Save the Manatee Club.
[Last modified September 14, 2007, 23:04:31]
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