ESCANABA - The restructuring of Michigan's government is drawing nearer. There will be consolidation of agencies and departments that will forever change the way the business of public service is done in our state.
I've had the chance to talk in detail with Lt. Governor John Cherry as he was given the task of outlining a plan to make whatever changes are necessary to continue state government at a smaller scale, reflecting our shrunken economy.
Those of us deeply involved with our natural resources and outdoors recreation are monitoring what will most likely see the merger of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and perhaps even the Department of Agriculture (MDA) into one entity.
There are actually three type "A" agencies and 18 departments that will be combined into eight total for Michigan. One might question where the distribution of authority would go and if the mandated reductions will be a blessing in disguise? Will autonomy return to the local regions?
Michigan's fiscal year begins Oct. 1. By statutory requirement, the state budget must be balanced and cannot run at a deficit. A potential snag in the process is how business decisions will be made during the transition.
One example of working out fiscal problems is the DNR's restricted fund for Off Road Vehicles (ORV's).
The DNR has had an ORV Advisory Board with seven members (three from the UP) who are charged, in part, with monitoring disbursements and projecting future needs.
So far this year, the group has developed a vision statement: Develop, administer, operate, maintain, and promote an inter-connected, sustainable, self supporting network of approximately 4,000 miles of state-designated off-road vehicle trails, routes, and multiple scramble areas, including the appropriate level of infrastructure, safety, education, promotion of responsible use, restoration and maintenance, and law enforcement, with public fiduciary responsibility, to meet a variety of rider expectations and public demand.
Wow! That's a huge commitment.
The ORV Advisory Board utilizes essential volunteer conservation organizations like the Sportsmen's Off Road Vehicle Association that now has eight chapters in the UP.
Most of the maintenance of the route and trail systems across the UP are done at least in part by these volunteer groups. The only payment provided to the clubs is that for expenses. Except for contractor work, all the project labor is donated.
Still, as successful as they have been, the rate of expansion and inflation have slowed the revenue down to a point that by the year 2011, there will be no fund balance. Moreover, if the ORV fund is to continue with the success it has experienced in the last several years, capital improvements must be analyzed and prioritized to stay at pace with current expansion.
Dick Ranney is from National City and is chairman of the ORV Advisory Board. In May he expressed his belief that the ORV license fee structure currently in place in Michigan has never kept up with inflation.
"If it had, today, the ORV license would be around $25. Current revenues are about $2.9 million and current appropriations are $4.7 million. We are spending about $1.8 million more than we are bringing in," he said.
It is being suggested an increase to $30 per license be considered to keep pace with the needs of the next 10 years.
So far, this suggestion has met with speculation by some, which then becomes the reality of others, that the state is top heavy with administration and not enough is being done "on the ground" as far as projects.
A quick review of the distribution of the Michigan ORV licensure fees tells a different story.
The current $16.25 annual ORV license fee is broken into three categories: Safety Education ($1), ORV Trails Improvement Fund ($15) and Agent/Dealer Commission (25 cents).
Less than 50 percent of the Trails Improvement Fund goes toward improvement and maintenance grants. Just over 12.5 percent goes towards damage restoration grants. Law enforcement or (other) trail improvement grants shares about 31.6 percent of the total fund (24 percent of which goes to the County Sheriff's Department)
Administration of the ORV License Fee Fund equates to approximately 3.33 percent of the total.
The Michigan ORV trail/route system covers 3,200 miles with 73 percent on state forests. Of the system, 30 percent is cycle trail, 50 percent is ATV trail and 20 percent is route.
In the Upper Peninsula, it is legal for ORVs to operate on state forest roads as well as the designated trail system, unless a specific state forest road is posted closed to ORV use. This does not include the National Forest Roads that are open for use. The western complex of the Hiawatha National Forest has 2,200 miles of use area alone.
Suffice it to say that even with the probable shrinking of Michigan government, the current success in the growth of the state ORV trail and route system and scramble areas will need to see some enhanced revenue to continue. It is my guess a necessary ORV license fee increase proposal will be coming soon.
Your responsibility will be to sort out the information, based on fact, and then decide what you would support to resolve the issue.
Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.