Cash flow never stops for Missouri Conservation Department

Because of state cutbacks, 300 low-income parents in Missouri lost health-care coverage this year.

The Grandview School District had to cut 60 positions, including 30 teachers.

About 30 beds sit empty at the Western Missouri Mental Health Center in Kansas City because of staff reductions, 94 in June alone.

At the same time, the Missouri Department of Conservation is flush with cash. Its reserve fund alone could restore all those budget cuts and more.

The agency had enough money to hire a New Age pianist from Oregon to entertain small crowds, spend half a million dollars to run ads promoting itself on television and pay an additional half million for better time slots for its own TV show.

“They've got more money than they know what to do with,” said Robert Eck of Rolla, who donated land to the agency in 1989 but now regrets it.

“It is time that the public be made aware of the amount of money that the Conservation Department is receiving and spending on some unnecessary projects simply because they have so much money to spend.”

Most of that money comes from a never-ending 1/8-cent sales tax that has been untouchable ever since voters narrowly passed a constitutional amendment in 1976. Supporters said it would provide $25 million a year, enough to complete the department's “Design for Conservation” plan within about 20 years.

But tax money keeps pouring in. Next year it is expected to hit $97 million.

The tax is so old that a 2000 Gallup poll showed only half of Missourians realize they're paying it. But the Conservation Department's director said residents are happy with the results.

“Missouri is a great conservation state,” said John Hoskins, who became director in 2002. “If we're not number one, we're certainly in the top three to five. Do we want to be 40th or 45th?”

Indeed, the Gallup poll showed 81 percent of Missouri residents think the department is doing a good job.

There is much to praise.

The agency has brought deer and turkey populations back from the brink to turn the state into a hunting paradise. It stocks lakes and streams with millions of fish each year from its 11 hatcheries. It has built a half-dozen nature centers across the state and publishes an award-winning magazine.

“This is awesome,” said Suzy McGarrah of Oak Grove as she helped her 7-year-old son, Kyle, make a bear print while visiting the agency's two buildings at the Missouri State Fair last month.

“We love Missouri conservation.”

Not on the list

It's understandable that Missourians would support a tax that protects their parks. But what may surprise them is that their Conservation Department doesn't do that.

Many other conservation departments maintain state parks, but not Missouri's. That's the job of the Department of Natural Resources. In fact, some legislators speculated back in 1976 that the conservation tax wouldn't have passed if voters had realized that.

Many still don't.

Lindsay Cundiff and a dozen other men fishing one day this month at Fleming Park, a Jackson County park, assumed the Conservation Department was responsible for their pleasant outings.

“I don't mind paying the tax,” said Cundiff, who was fishing on Blue Springs Lake. “They just need to keep the trash picked up around here.”

The Conservation Department doesn't maintain that lake or many of the other Missouri lakes and forests. Those are overseen by a number of agencies, such as counties, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service.

Instead, the Conservation Department has its own set of projects, many of them laid out in the agency's 1976 Design for Conservation plan. The $1.5 billion that taxpayers have put into the agency's coffers since 1976 has allowed it to meet those goals — and then some.

For example, the department has bought at least 150,000 more acres of land for public hunting and nature enjoyment than it proposed in its 1976 plan.

The sales tax has helped replenish the deer population so effectively that some people now complain there are too many.

“We have more deer today than when Lewis and Clark came up through Missouri,” Sen. Dan Clemens, a Marshfield Republican, said at a legislative hearing.

The plan called for adding five state forests, or conservation areas, within 50 miles of urban centers. Instead, the department has acquired 22 conservation areas, totaling 68,000 acres. They include Maple Woods Nature Preserve in Gladstone and Burr Oak Woods Nature Center in Blue Springs.

Under the plan, the department also was to build and operate 43 public lakes throughout the state. It has built 64.

“They will never admit that we've reached a conclusion to the Design for Conservation that was presented to us in the '70s,” said Rep. Bob Johnson, a Lee's Summit Republican.

“Conservation could continue to do a legitimate job, still remain an outstanding conservation department, without having to create reasons to waste taxpayers' money.”

Johnson and others want Missouri residents to have the chance to vote on the tax again, as they do regularly on some other taxes.

But Hoskins said those who proposed the tax deliberately left out that option.

“They recognized that meaningful accomplishments take decades, not years,” he said.

The permanent sales tax is often referred to as “The Missouri Plan” by other states' envious conservation agencies.

“That's kind of the dream of all state agencies, to get ahold of something like that,” said Mike Miller, editor of Kansas Wildlife & Parks magazine.

Only one other state — Arkansas — has a never-ending sales tax dedicated to conservation. But the tax is split with state parks, bringing Arkansas conservation about $80 million less each year than Missouri's agency.

“Everybody talks about The Missouri Plan,” said Scott Pengelly, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which includes conservation.

The tax transformed Missouri's agency from one primarily funded by licenses for anglers and hunters.

Next year, the Missouri Department of Conservation will have a budget of more than $160 million, with 60 percent coming from the sales tax. The agency now has the third-highest conservation budget in the country, behind only those of Florida and California, according to the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, a conservation advocacy group.

That much money makes Missouri's Conservation Department different from other Missouri agencies, said state Auditor Claire McCaskill, a candidate for governor who wants another vote on the sales tax.

“It really is a stark juxtaposition,” McCaskill said. “It really is the haves and the have-nots.”

But Hoskins said the conservation sales tax has paid for itself by generating economic activity in Missouri.

Besides, he said, the agency is frugal — although the department's budget has continued to increase. Officials have delayed some construction projects, he said, and held dozens of jobs vacant for up to two years.

“We have made a series of reductions,” he said.

Food bills

But a Kansas City Star examination of department spending revealed a number of programs and expenses that seem far removed from managing fish and wildlife.

For example, the review showed the agency spent $600,000 last year feeding employees and guests.

That's as much as the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Social Services spent combined. Each of those departments is bigger than conservation.

The Conservation Department spent $400,000 alone on meals that employees ate on the road while on business.

Although the department has no agencywide cap on food spending, it has tightened rules for on-the-road meals, said Carter Campbell, the department's chief financial officer.

In other employee costs, the department spends an average of more than $10,000 a year to embroider uniforms and other items, The Star found.

Over the past five years, the agency also spent $4 million on hotel bills for a steady cycle of seminars and conferences. Of that, nearly $323,000 went to Tan-Tar-A, a resort on Lake of the Ozarks, and $102,000 to Lodge of Four Seasons, another Ozarks resort.

Much of that money went for conferences that gave supervisors a chance to meet and employees a way to network with businesses and universities, conservation officials said.

In the past three years, the department also spent more than $300,000 on motivational training for employees. Conservation officials said the money was well-spent.

“That's what we do to make our employees more and more effective,” said Cynthia Metcalfe of St. Louis, the conservation commission chairwoman. “Good human resource policies are an important part of running the agency.”

But McCaskill said other departments can't afford that luxury.

“I guarantee you there's no other state agency spending that kind of staff money on that kind of warm and fuzzy staff development,” she said.

Tom Goodner, a former security guard at the Discovery Center in Kansas City whose position was eliminated this year, said training sessions wasted time and money because they were not specific to employees' jobs.

Even custodians had to take classes, including “Awakening the Creative Spirit,” a course so childish it was embarrassing, he said.

“They had Play-Doh on each table that you make stuff out of,” Goodner said. “They had some Pick-Up Sticks, pipe cleaners, candy and cookies lying around.”

Robert Gaiser, another former security guard, said some social gatherings were presented as training seminars, such as a firearms safety and training day in March near Parkville.

“Now, what do 50 secretaries, foresters, custodians and education specialists need with firearms training?” Gaiser said. “We got out there and had a 30-minute class about locking up your gun in your house, and then there was a barbecue.”

Hoskins said he wasn't aware that all those employees had attended the training, but he defended the event. Whether they use guns in their jobs or not, he said, “They're around people who have guns and they probably need to understand something about them.”

Sunfish and pianos

The department's bountiful funds also allow it to lavish perks on state residents that flabbergast conservation officials outside Missouri.

For example, each year the agency spends $200,000 to give 18,000 students “positive fishing experiences.” Employees will locate ponds for school class trips and, if needed, even stock them with hybrid sunfish and channel catfish purchased from commercial sources.

If students need fishing gear, the agency provides that, too.

Other states have fishing events for children, but not like that.

In Minnesota, Pengelly said, game employees stock a fishing pond for children at Cabela's in the spring and stock one for handicapped children at a hatchery.

“But it's just one fishing day,” he said.

Among other spending:

 In May, John Nilsen, a pianist and recording artist from Oregon, performed at nature centers in four Missouri cities, including Kansas City's Discovery Center.

“It looks like we're going to get our pick of seats,” said one woman as she headed toward the front of the 250-seat auditorium. Although the concert was free, fewer than half the seats were occupied.

The tour's cost to taxpayers: About $4,000, including $1,400 to rent grand pianos.

Commissioners didn't know about the event but defended it.

“I have confidence in our nature center management that they are going to put on programs that are appropriate and compatible with the nature center and will bring people in there,” Metcalfe said.

The head of the outreach division said the department has been hiring musicians with nature-based messages for years. “There are many paths to connecting to the natural world,” Lorna Domke said.

Officials at other state conservation agencies chuckled when asked whether they sponsored similar events.

“We don't get a lot of concert pianists,” said Diane Tipton of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

 Gift shops sell books, videos, computer games and many unusual items, including pewter paddlefish pins, ornaments shaped like tree leaves and CDs such as “Fiddles and Forests.”

But they've gone in the hole to do it.

An internal audit evaluating the agency's gift shop costs showed that in fiscal year 2001, only three of the 30 centers that sold merchandise made a profit. Add in fringe benefits, and the department lost $350,000 on trinkets.

Total sales increased in 2002, but a department spokesman said expenses were not available, and no figures at all existed for more recent years.

Hoskins said the department wasn't trying to make a profit but no longer sells merchandise in some locations.

 The Conservation Department has bumped up its already surging construction schedule.

It has built nine nature, education and visitors centers across the state at a cost of $21 million since the sales tax began.

Now an additional $44 million worth of projects are in the works, including an education and service center to be built in Kirksville for more than $5 million and several new buildings on the state fairgrounds for $1.4 million.

About $5.5 million is going toward a conservation campus at Cape Girardeau that includes 50 acres of forest and a 75-seat amphitheater.

And $2.3 million has been approved to tear down or renovate a complex of historic buildings nestled in a secluded forest on the Current River.

The Jerry J. Presley Conservation Education Center offers workshops for teachers and others who want to learn more about Missouri ecosystems.

Department officials said the Presley center and others provide conservation education, which residents have asked for in numerous surveys.

Living color

Of all the department's projects, one of the most popular is the magazine.

Open the glossy Missouri Conservationist and you'll find remarkable shots of wildlife — a close-up of a looming bald-faced hornet, for example — and articles on everything from the migration of salamanders to how turkey hunting helped a cancer survivor cope.

Every quarter it includes an insert for young readers called “Outside In” with stories such as “Homecoming Deer,” written by a high school homecoming queen who killed her first deer.

Readers rave, and no wonder — the Conservationist is distributed free each month to almost 500,000 Missouri residents. The publication costs taxpayers $2 million a year.

Most states charge for their magazines, and still they publish less often than Missouri. Montana, for example, charges $9 for six issues a year. Kansas distributes its magazine six times a year for $11. Arkansas charges $8 for the six issues it publishes a year.

“You've got to weigh your costs on getting the word out,” said Steve Wilson, spokesman for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

Some states, such as New Jersey and Michigan, have even killed their magazines because of budget restraints.

Missouri's Conservation Department doesn't charge for its magazine because “the people are paying for it already with the sales tax,” said commissioner Anita Gorman of Kansas City.

Besides the magazine, the agency gives away thousands of copies of the 900 other publications it produces every year, with titles such as “Tempting Trout Recipes” and “Bat House Plans.” You can pick up a brochure at one of the nature centers and check up to 20 titles that the department will mail to you free.

“Wow,” said Dawn Flinn, education coordinator for the Minnesota Natural Resources Department. “We create educational posters and things that are free in limited quantities, but nothing like that.”

The Missouri agency also spends $500,000 a year to produce and broadcast 13 episodes of its 30-minute “Missouri Outdoors” television program, which includes such segments as choosing a canoe and preparing a dish of parmesan squirrel.

The episodes run in rotation every week on stations across the state.

In comparison, Arkansas invests $20,000 a year in its weekly 30-minute television program. Minnesota's short TV show was killed last year because of budget cutbacks.

But next year, Missouri plans to spend even more on its TV show — an additional $500,000 to buy better time slots for it.

Land rush

In July, about 70 persons packed a community hall in Oregon, Mo., many to protest how much land the Conservation Department and federal government have bought.

“The Missouri Department of Conservation is one of the biggest landowners in the county,” said Don Holstine, a Holt County commissioner. “It's time for them to stop buying land.”

The department doesn't pay full taxes on all the land it owns — in Holt County, it's 60 percent of what private landowners pay. That creates a financial strain on rural counties, critics said.

Conservation officials say they are paying their fair share of taxes and, at any rate, have shifted their focus away from buying more land.

Critics have their doubts.

“They say they're not going to buy any more unless it's next to them,” said Rep. John Quinn, a Chillicothe Republican. “Well, at some point, everything is next to them.”

Already, critics say, the department has so much land it can't use it all.

For example, the agency bought land on Lake of the Ozarks more than four years ago that it still hasn't developed.

The $375,000 property was intended to become a public access to the lake, but that would require up to $750,000 more to build a paved road, a 50-vehicle parking lot, a double-lane ramp, docks and toilet facilities, according to an agency memo.

“The only thing that they've done, and I think they did that just to please some of the people that were squawking about it, is pushed over a few trees and dumped a little gravel for a parking lot for a few cars,” said Fred Long, who owns land next to the property.

The department defended the project and said work was delayed by lack of funds. It should begin soon, Hoskins said.

“There's been a long-standing perceived need for an access in that area,” he said. “Lake of the Ozarks is a place where facilities like this will get used.”

But James Steele, a former real estate agent who used to sell property in the area, said the department's estimates that 50,000 to 80,000 people a year would use the property were preposterous. He said the land is remote and could never handle that much traffic, even with roads.

“That sales tax is a wonderful thing, it has done a lot of things, they've bought a lot of properties that our children and their children can enjoy as years go by,” Steele said.

“But it really tears me up when I see them mishandling it.”

Database Editor Greg Reeves contributed to this report.