Montana State Parks has been a major focus of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks director Martha Williams in her relatively short tenure, and one she expects to continue.
“Let me put it this way: I’ve spent a lot of time on parks, but I’m happy to,” she said after a few months on the job. “I feel like the governor has charged me with supporting and highlighting parks, and I plan on delivering on that, but it’s going to take time.”
The state parks division of FWP drew attention from legislators and the media during the last legislative session after balance sheets showed millions of dollars went unspent and accumulated in the division’s bank account. While it had about $11.2 million in the bank, maintenance backlogs continued to rise and future spending threatened to outpace revenues.
Unlike many state agencies that rely on the general fund, FWP as an agency and Montana State Parks as a division draw funding through so-called “state special revenue.” For fish and wildlife, the bulk of funding comes from fishing and hunting license sales and federal excise taxes. Parks sees its funding from several sources, including bed tax and a fee on vehicle licenses.
Rather than allocating funding to parks, the Legislature authorizes the division to spend its funding. While the Legislature allowed state parks to partially spend the $11.2 million on capital projects and diverted a portion to other projects, the reasons for the unspent funding remained a mystery.
During the legislative session, lawmakers grilled Williams and other FWP officials about the budget. Legislators contacted for this story said they did not get to the bottom of the funding questions, with one saying a full explanation may never come, given employee privacy constraints.
The financial issues led to an internal investigation by the department, which FWP chief of administration Dustin Temple detailed at the last Montana State Parks and Recreation Board meeting.
Starting in fiscal year 2012, the parks division apparently went away from its traditional practice of using its own funding to pay for capital improvement projects. The division sought capital funding both from the general fund and state bonding programs – requests that were ultimately unsuccessful.
During the same time period, some funding for operations also went unspent, with no clear reason why.
FWP has maintained that those who could answer many of the questions were no longer with the agency. The former parks administrator was terminated, the former director departed and the former administration chief retired. All have declined interview requests or not returned requests for comment.
Present employees could possibly explain how the money accumulated but not why decisions were made that caused the accumulation, the agency said.
Temple, who did not administer FWP’s finances until late last year, told the parks board that both capital and operations are designed to be funded by state parks revenue. The administration assumed, as an accounting practice, that allocated funding is then expended, but will no longer make that assumption, he told the board.
“All of our controls have been built around expenditures, but we will no longer stop there. We will dig as deep as we need to go with resources allocated,” he said.
A large ending fund in a given year is also not unusual, given that state parks takes in a large chunk of its revenue at the end of the fiscal year in August.
Accounting must look at what is actually happening with the administration division of FWP taking a more active role in not just state parks, but across the agency, Temple said, which includes looking at program expenditures each month.
“What we do want to make sure is that the resources we’ve been given, we’re putting them on the ground where the people who gave them to us intended them to be put and we’re providing sufficient visibility into our processes,” he said.
Williams believes state parks is on a positive track and says she intends to keep promises made during the legislative session, echoing Temple in accountability in spending. Lawmakers authorized nearly $6 million to capital projects at three state parks.
“When we go to the Legislature and say we need this money, from the top down all of us will be so careful in tracking our progress in keeping our promises in how we spend that, that we will spend that money and spend it the way the legislature intended us to,” she said.
State parks will also return to its pre-2012 practice of funding capital projects solely through its own revenues. Williams said does not anticipate asking for general fund money or bonding again.
“The parks division and our budget office is all working together closely to correct some of the mistakes of the past,” she said, saying operations funding must be spent and capital spending must be commensurate with available funding.
The past is not something Williams wants to focus on, saying she is interested in the opportunity to highlight parks going forward.
As FWP implements its new accounting checks, the division saw yet another shakeup earlier this summer when Gov. Steve Bullock asked the chair and vice chair of the board to step down – something that Chairman Tom Towe declined to do, before his board appointment was terminated.
Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, chairs the Senate Fish and Game Committee, which recommended confirmation of Towe as chairman in 2015. Following Towe’s removal, she sent a letter asking the governor’s office for an explanation and reason for the dismissal.
Fielder said Monday she has not received a response.
Williams was diplomatic when asked about the governor’s decision, saying she did not have an issue with the former makeup of the parks and recreation board, but was excited to work with the new members.
At the same time the board announcements were made, the governor and FWP rolled out a “Parks in Focus” initiative. The initiative aims to build support for parks and implement its strategic plan to broaden funding sources and partnerships. It will also look at the broader picture of recreation in the state, Williams said.
And Montana State Parks is looking for its new administrator – a hire Williams hopes to have in place by the end of the year. She described the ideal candidate as “a team player who will seize on opportunities and bring good experience.”