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How federal budget cuts could impact wildlife management in Alaska

Naomi KloudaHomer Tribune
Scott McMurren photo

Federal employees hold 33 percent of Alaska's jobs, and a new retirement incentive in place is encouraging 10 percent of them to retire. The potential to lose the more experienced wildlife biologists, NOAA experts and career professionals in National Marine Fisheries Service could cause a significant impact in coastal communities along Kachemak Bay.

In the Homer area, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the largest federal employer with 25-30 people, including seasonal workers. Employees of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge at the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center building already went through heavy budget cuts last year, said Refuge Manager Steve Delehanty.

An incentive system to encourage long-term employees to retire is in place until Dec. 31. The idea isn’t a mandate or a layoff, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Bruce Woods. But in the long term, it could save the service millions of dollars in salaries. Eligible retirees get $150-200 more per month than they would if they put off retirement until next year.

Refuge Manager Delehanty said he doesn’t anticipate losing any of his employees to early retirement. This refuge’s painful budget cuts came last year when four positions were cut or not filled and other decisions had to be made, including docking the research ship M/V Tiglax to cut staff and fuel costs for two weeks from the budget.

“Our budget is flat, so when we made the decisions to cut, it was to make it balance. We were choosing between fuel for our building and the ship and other cuts,” he said. “We made the painful decision to tie up our ship for a couple of weeks. We didn’t fill a receptionist position – when you call there’s no receptionist to answer the phone. We cut hours the visitor’s center is open.”

As the government makes cuts in federal programs, agencies fear they may not soon be able to replace people who leave.

Under the federal layoff incentives, younger workers would be brought in at lower salaries.Among the cuts at the Refuge was the loss of the environmental education coordinator.

This is the person who oversees the refuge’s public education outreach rotating programs at remote areas of the refuge such as Adak and St. Paul, the camps for kids and the science programs for area schools.

Filling that position is high on Delehanty’s priority list. Instead of cutting more, Delehanty wants to gain a receptionist-payroll clerk and hire an education coordinator.

Lisa Matlock, the former refuge ed coordinator, accepted a position that transferred her to the Anchorage USF&W office. Having less money means hiring fewer people and a diminishing in projects that get done, Delehanty said. “Less money means less people and you do less stuff. You can’t do more with less. That’s the reality,” he said.

Another causality in the cuts was an oceanography position the refuge no longer has filled. Coupled with losses to retirements in other collaborative agencies, such as NOAA for ocean work or NMFS experts, research in the years ahead could suffer.

“We have collaborations writing white papers and grant projects. In January when I pick up the phone to call someone who is a technical expert, that person might not be working with us anymore,” Delehanty said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski foresees another problem ahead: a gridlock in receiving retirement checks. She is pushing the Office of Personnel Management to fix its system for distributing and processing retirement benefits which currently are running at a six to nine- month backlog.

Because of an expiring provision in how pension benefits are calculated, federal employees in Alaska are expected to retire at a higher rate than normal at the end of this year. But the long lag time in receiving payments creates a huge amount of uncertainty for Alaskan workers.

In a letter to the OPM, Murkowski wrote: “It is taking between 172 and 291 days for OPM to process retired federal employees’ paperwork and there is currently a backlog of about 40,000 pending retirement cases.  Both of these numbers are unacceptable.”

OPM began working in January 2012 to upgrade its systems to process retirement annuities more quickly, but those updates are still seven months away, she said.

This story first appeared in the Homer Tribune and is reprinted with permission.