The new director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks voiced her commitment to Montana State Parks Thursday while acknowledging a troubled history and major questions around the budget.
Director Martha Williams, who has been in her job for about two weeks, made her formal introduction the Montana State Parks and Recreation Board. Since taking lead of the agency, state parks and aquatic invasive species have been her two biggest issues so far.
Williams told the board she wished to ”Convey how committed I am to Montana State Parks and I do want to support parks as best I can.”
Williams said that she has reached out to regional parks managers and plans to visit the various regions to meet with staff.
Montana State Parks has faced long-running issues with a mounting maintenance backlog and inadequate staffing. A well-documented divide in FWP between parks and the often higher profile fish and wildlife issues has also brought some discussion of moving parks out of the agency or attaching it administratively.
More recently, questions surrounding the budget and why money available to Parks went unspent, has brought a slew of questions from legislators and state parks advocates.
“I recognize the divisiveness and sensitivity and will do my best to navigate that sensitivity going forward,” Williams said. “I fully support the staff.”
Board members said they’ve been fielding a number of questions about the parks budget.
The budget faces two central issues. First, the ending fund balance has nearly doubled since the 2012 fiscal year to $11.2 million. Second, future revenue projections fall below expenditures, meaning Parks must either raise more revenue or cut expenses to be structurally sound.
Questions about why the ending fund balance went underspent have remained unanswered, but Williams and FWP Administration Chief Dustin Temple detailed an exhaustive search to find out what happened.
While the former parks administrator was terminated and the former administration chief retired, Temple said current staff has gone back to 2012 to account for allocations, expenditures and who made those decisions.
Temple stressed that while he has no knowledge about why decisions were made that led to underspending funds, the efforts will provide the board and others with the facts about what funding went unspent.
“And you can essentially draw your own conclusions,” he said.
House Bill 5, which is currently under consideration in the Legislature, would spend $5.95 million of the ending fund on capital projects for three parks. The Legislature must grant authority for State Parks to spend its revenues.
Concerns about the budget imbalance and creating a long-term obligation by funding new operating expenses, such as more employees, became a hang-up for the governor’s office when deciding what authority to request from the Legislature. The decision was made to partially spend down the balance with a one-time request for capital.
Board Chairman Tom Towe said that he is pushing for authority to spend more of that funding, and seeing if some of it can go to operations needs. With future revenues below expenditures, Towe would like to see revenues increased, rather than cuts, to bring balance to the budget.
A handful of bills this session could bring in additional revenues, and with a balanced budget and more money, Towe expressed his hope to see the remainder of the end fund freed up for spending.