Eye On Illinois: IDNR staffing shortages unlikely to get lawmakers’ attention

Money doesn’t grow on trees. If it did, Illinois would most certainly not be in one of its current predicaments.

Last Thursday, Kristin DiCenso, leader of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, told the Senate Tourism and Hospitality Committee her agency faces a severe staffing shortage. There currently are 1,170 employees managing about 330 state-owned and leased facilities; DiCenso said it would take 2,500 to do all the work.

“It’s very, very difficult to manage,” DiCenso said, according to Capitol News Illinois. “We get a lot of complaints from not only the general public, but also from legislators about staffing at sites.”

If each tree in a state park produced a single dollar, the General Assembly could probably afford to double the IDNR workforce. But even that fantasy scenario leaves us about 160 employees short of the goal, not to mention those tree-grown dollars would have to be perennial given the impact of 1,700 new enlistees in state health care and retirement plans.

On this side of reality, where we never confuse flora for an ATM, it’s clear that staffing shortages – even those that irk lawmakers – won’t provide enough incentive to solve the funding issue. The state simply has too many other budgetary priorities and a persistent lack of agreement on how to spend what continues to be a decent revenue stream.

The state spends about $40.3 million of its general fund on the IDNR, which is a huge sum but only a small fraction of the $42.3 billion state budget. We have an unemployment trust fund with a $5 billion deficit, to cite just one financial challenge, so it’s moderately impressive the General Assembly was able to keep IDNR funding stable for the coming fiscal year.

Lawmakers are returning to Springfield this week to negotiate energy legislation, with some reports indicating Gov. JB Pritzker is willing to give Exelon close to $700 million in ransom – er, subsidies – to keep it from shutting down nuclear plants. Electricity and jobs are more important than clean hiking trails, but if we’re going to launder corporate handouts under the auspices of environmental concerns, the continued willingness to operate wonderful state conservation facilities on a shoestring grows ever more frustrating.

A steadfast refusal to implement parking or user fees for IDNR’s most popular attractions only compounds the problem. The parks are seeing more visitors with each year because they’re free to get in, and while the extra traffic is good for adjoining businesses the parks themselves are worse for wear.

State parks might not match power plants as an economic engine, but recreation is big business. It’s time Illinois started acknowledging that reality. Trees can help grow money, but the IDNR can’t work miracles.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Local News Network. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.