By Brenden West
In a perfect world, Walt Wickham’s 2015 Clinton County Conservation budget would be set at almost $1.5 million — $218,609 and 17 percent higher than last year’s approved expenses. It would include hiring a new park ranger and bring many outdated department vehicles up to par.
But even Wickham, the county’s conservation director, conceded that it’s “wishful thinking” to believe he’ll get every penny he’s asking for. Most budget proposals, after all, shoot for 5 percent bumps or lower.
“We know when we present a budget that has a large increase like that that we’re not going to get all of that,” Wickham said to county supervisors Monday during the conservation budget presentation. “But we also feel that if we don’t tell you these things, we don’t want it to be a surprise at some point down the road.”
Wickham calculated a $41,150 salary for the new ranger and estimated $161,000 to replace nine vehicles. Both chunks would go under maintenance and operations costs, which would increase more than 22 percent from $798,187 last year to $979,928 in 2015.
That total accounts for more than 65 percent of conservation’s proposed 2015 budget, which topped out at $1,280,365 a year ago.
“As in the past year, the single largest increase in the budget has been in the area of new equipment,” Wickham said.
He was joined by West District Park Officer Chip Brown, who has overseen a major spike in campground use over the last 13 years. Since 2000, conservation has added two cabins, three playgrounds, an equestrian trail and three wildlife areas to its western camp offerings. Wickham and Brown reported that camping revenues jumped from $7,000 to $47,000 as a result.
If that influx continues, Brown said he’s worried about camper safety. As it stands, he works every weekend during the seven-month camping season. Brown said he’d like to see an uptick in campground supervision, part of which will be solved by adding another ranger.
“If I had another person, we could rotate to make sure we get to those areas,” Brown said.
Supervisors Brian Schmidt and John Staszewski both said they were sympathetic to the needs of conservation. Schmidt agreed with Wickham that the department was “spread thin” while the county addressed other needs.
“It’s kind of a catching-up period,” Schmidt said.
Even so, conservation won’t be getting all of those needs addressed through this year’s budget alone.
“It’s a balancing act. We always have to come up with ways to address these things,” Schmidt said. He added this is the highest proposed increase (percentage-wise) he’s seen as a supervisor.
Clinton County budget sessions continue through the next week.