State Audit questions MDC elk expenses
By Jo Schaper
In a report issued Dec. 28, State Auditor Thomas Schwiech reported discrepancies between actual and budgeted expenses relating to the Missouri Department of Conservation elk restoration project, and noted deficiencies in other aspects of department internal accounting performance. The department maintained an overall “Good” rating from the audit.
According to the report, “The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) did not prepare a complete and accurate estimate of costs to reintroduce elk into Missouri. The MDC estimated the cost to reintroduce 150 elk into Missouri in the Spring of 2011 would be about $411,000 ($2,740 per elk); however, as of June 30, 2011, the MDC has spent approximately $1.23 million ($31,538 per elk) to release a total of 39 elk into the state.”
The audit questioned the discussion of elk related topics in closed session as possible Sunshine Law violations; the department countered that such discussions related to legal and personnel matters related to the elk, and were exempt.
Schweich further said that the budget included costs to capture the elk in Kentucky and construct holding pens, payroll for hourly employees, and various other related costs. However, the budget did not include personnel costs of salaried employees, or the long term cost to monitor the elk. In addition, the budget indicated habitat improvements within the elk restoration zone would be necessary, but did not estimate the cost of those improvements.
According to official department response to the audit, “As defined in the elk restoration plan, the estimated operational cost for trapping, holding, relocating, testing, and monitoring up to 150 elk in Fiscal Year 2011 (FY11) was approximately $411,000 in Department funds. A total of $363,033 was actually expended by the
Department during FY11 for operational costs associated with elk restoration.”
The elk restoration plan approved by the Missouri Conservation Commission in fall 2010 intended to bring 150 elk to Missouri over three years. Private funding for the effort includes a $40,000 grant from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, (RMEF) for the Kentucky capture pens; $35,000 from the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation, and a pledge of up to $300,000 for establishment and maintenance of free roaming elk from RMEF, as well as a cooperative agreement with the University of Missouri-Columbia for ongoing radio-collar and GPS elk monitoring.
The department acknowledged that some of the disputed expenses incurred benefit the elk and elk-viewing, such as road and habitat improvement, including food plot re-establishment on Peck Ranch. They say these more properly belong under general maintenance and improvements of department lands and that they benefit all species, not just elk.
The audit covered 2009 and 2010. The elk expenses began in FY 2010-2011, and are ongoing. Unanticipated expenses relating to elk included some related to building the Kentucky pens (which are being reused) and a week delay and retesting of the animals due to inconclusive veterinary results before they were transported to Peck Ranch.
In other matters, the auditor pointed out the department had lagged in implementing area management plans for conservation areas. In the audit’s analysis, 470 (59 percent) of 807 conservation areas and accesses did not have an area plan as of June 2011. A previous audit conducted in 2009 noted this deficiency.
In the interim two years departmental staff have been reduced by 10%. An area plan is supposed to connect the department’s goals, an area’s resources, and assess public use of the area. The rebuttal says MDC expects to complete or update all 807 plans by 2016. An additional 148 properties have been determined not to need management plans.
The final items in the audit report questioned use or accounting for use of state procurement cards and the procedure used to give a single-sourced book contract to a department retiree. In their comment, the department emphasized internal oversight on the procurement card discrepancies, and the unique nature of the individual given the contract, which they felt warranted not putting the book out for bid.