CONCORD – A bipartisan group of lawmakers offered a “Chinese menu” of options to try and erase an annual, six-figure deficit in the state fund that pays for search and rescue operations.
While all of them admitted there were detractors to each idea and even technical problems carrying them out, they said doing nothing is no longer an option.
“The bill before you is not perfect and I admit that,” said Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester. “We have got to do something. The resources of Fish and Game are being stretched beyond belief.”
Over the last six years, the fund has run a deficit of $100,000. The shortfall is largely due to the fact that hikers and sportsmen who get rescued end up paying for some of those costs only 4 percent of the time.
Executive Director Glenn Normandeau said a 1998 law spells out someone has to be found to be “negligent” to be charged for the rescue and this can be a vague standard.
“Collection of money is a nightmare for us. There are a lot of people who simply don’t have it,” Normandeau explained.
D’Allesandro’s bill offered three ways to cover the deficit, including:
Fee: Any hiker who is rescued regardless of whether they are at fault would have to contribute something. A flat fee of $350 would be charged for any rescue that cost up to $1000; $600 for a rescue of $1,000 to $1,500 and $1,000 for any rescue costing more than $1,500.
The average rescue costs $2,000 according to state officials though that expense is rising due to escalating expenses for National Guard helicopters that are often used for these searches.
Violation surcharge: This would tack on a new, $10 charge on top of anyone who is paying a fine for violating any fish and game law.
Voluntary hike safe card: As an insurance policy, any hiker could avoid having to pay for a future rescue by buying this card at a one-time cost of $18.
“Look at this as a Chinese menu,” D’Allesandro remarked after the hearing. “These are ideas for the Legislature to pick and choose and maybe there are some others we haven’t put in here that should be on the table.”
The bill’s prime sponsor, House Republican Leader Gene Chandler of Bartlett, said the state of Colorado became the first state several years ago to adopt their own safe hiker card. Chandler said the bill exempts sportsmen from having to pay for these rescues because they already do.
The only source of dedicated financing for search and rescue is $1 from the annual license fees for all hunters and fishermen.
Currently, 56 percent of those who are rescued are hikers.
Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, is an avid hiker who’s scaled the state’s tallest four dozen peaks several times and believes this is fair.
“We are left with trying to devise a fair system that supports our conservation officers who are going out at great risk to help people,” Bradley said.
Sponsors did say they would be willing to accept giving Normandeau and his agency the discretion to waive the rescue fees on a case-by-case basis.
But John Scarinza, president of the Randolph Mountain Club, said it’s not correct that hikers do not contribute to support state programs.
“The hikers makes up a big chunk of the volunteer force that goes out there supporting state search and rescue efforts,” Scarinza said.
Dennis Abbott of Newmarket is a former, longtime legislator and ex-chairman of the House Fish and Game and Marine Resources Committee, which considered the bill (HB 370). He said these financing options were inadequate — that policymakers need to acknowledge that search and rescue is an obligation of government and the state budget should pay for it.
“This is just another case of the Dutch boy putting the finger in the dike,” Abbott said. “It is not going to provide adequate funding. I do not see where you will come anywhere close to erasing the shortfall. It is really time to do something significant, we should be talking about the General Fund being able to deal with it.”