The top cop at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fretted for weeks before the 2017 Legislature that the agency would be left with a lasting game warden shortage of 15 percent.
That unfortunate prospect hovered over Lt. Col. Rodmen Smith, director of the DNR's Enforcement Division, as he pleaded in hearings for a $5.2 million increase in funding.
He testified that the money was needed to invigorate a department weakened by ever-higher fixed costs. The division had been making do by not replacing retired game wardens.
"At the start of the session … we were all kind of saying, 'Wooo, this isn't going well,''' Smith said last week. "But at the end everything came out well.''
The Legislature's handling of the DNR budget bill has delivered enough money for Smith to immediately hire 28 new game wardens — exactly how many are needed right now to field a full complement of 210 officers. A super-sized training academy will launch this summer.
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr described the outcome as "phenomenal.'' Smith said the support from legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton affirms the importance of DNR policing.
"We're excited,'' the chief said. "It's going to put more boots on the ground.''
While the funding request was debated, conservation officers were saying publicly that the foremost problem was that too few wardens were on the job to adequately deter poaching, drunken boating, illegal trail riding and other abuses. Smith himself testified that the staffing crunch left a combined area the size of Massachusetts and Rhode Island unchecked.
Before the boost from lawmakers in St. Paul, the Enforcement Division's biennial, all-fund budget for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 was set at $90 million. That will jump now by a total of $7.8 million, or 8.7 percent. The sum includes a $2.8 million operating adjustment of the sort received by most state agencies, further allowing Smith to hire replacements as retirements continue to take a toll on staffing levels.
DNR Budget Director Emily Engel said the DNR as a whole received $569.7 million for the coming biennium, a 10 percent increase over the base funding level. The Enforcement Division received 15 percent of the agency's new money.
Landwehr said the DNR contemplated holding back-to-back training academies at Camp Ripley to ramp up staffing levels. The norm for the DNR is to train up to 18 candidates at a time. But Smith said the decision was made recently to expedite the process by training an extra-large group all at once.
As soon as the 28 positions are filled, Smith said, the division will start planning for a second training academy to fill additional vacancies brought on by upcoming retirements. "Now we can hire as people retire,'' Smith said.
If you're not already a candidate for the approaching training academy, it's too late. The DNR took applications for the openings while the Legislature was still in session. Smith said the applicant pool is chosen and recruiters are narrowing the field through interviews and background checks. Candidates also receive physical agility testing and psychological evaluations.
"We're gonna make sure we have 28 qualified applicants'' to train at Camp Ripley for 14 weeks, Smith said. Graduates of the academy then experience 16 weeks of on-the-job training, followed by four to six months of a closely supervised probationary period.
"You're not hired until you're off probation,'' Smith said.
About 1,200 people were signed up to receive notification of the most recent job openings. Recruiters identified 587 qualified candidates, inviting them to take written exams in the first stage of narrowing the field. Smith said special outreach and recruitment efforts in various communities resulted in higher numbers of minorities, women and people with disabilities in the talent pool.
Of 312 qualified applicants with law enforcement backgrounds, 15 percent were female and 17 percent identified themselves as racial minorities. Another 3.2 percent said they are disabled. Similar percentages pertained to this year's qualified applicant pool of 275 people who do not have law enforcement experience.
The percentage of qualified applicants from "disparate'' backgrounds was higher in every category except one (women from non-law enforcement backgrounds) compared to the last round of hiring in 2015, according to a breakdown and comparison of the two rounds. A major goal for Smith is to diversify the ranks of DNR conservation officers.
A DNR conservation officer job pays $53,787 to $70,929 a year, not counting overtime. Benefits include health insurance, savings and retirement plans and vacation days. Officers are equipped with take-home patrol vehicles, an ATV, snowmobile, watercraft, laptop computer, internet service, mobile phone service, body armor, firearms and other safety equipment.
Smith said the rising costs of outfitting each officer had cut into the DNR's ability to replace every game warden who retired. But the new funding will ease the burden of "vacancy management,'' or holding various positions open in a way that evenly disperses a shortened staff.