After going well over budget on Newcastle warden’s home, Game and Fish leaders put pause on new housing projects

POWELL — Still stinging over criticism of a construction project in the Newcastle area that ran well over budget, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission has tabled two proposed employee housing projects. 

The cost overruns in Newcastle seemed to affect discussions about many budget items last week — including proposed housing projects in Jackson. 

The Game and Fish Department on Thursday sought preliminary commission approval for $740,000 to build a Game Warden station in the Buffalo area and a new home at the Auburn Fish Hatchery, located northwest of Afton. But the commission withheld its support. 

“I’m inclined to make a motion to pull those out of the budget today,” said Commissioner Pat Crank. “With the Newcastle situation, I’m not prepared to support that right now.” 

Crank was referring to the new Game Warden Station in Newcastle. When first approved in fiscal year 2013, the station had a $250,000 budget, the Newcastle News Letter Journal reported this month. However, thanks in part to change orders, the cost has since ballooned to more than $600,000, with some work still to be completed, the News Letter Journal reported. 

The Newcastle station includes 1,800 square-feet of living space, office space and a two-car garage; it sits on 5.44 acres of land, the paper noted in an extensive report. 

Game and Fish policies require game wardens and hatchery employees to live in department-provided housing. 

That’s why the department built the station in Newcastle — a process that the department said had been difficult — and why it’s now seeking $740,000 for housing in the Buffalo and Auburn areas. 

However, Crank made a motion to not include “the $390,000 house for the Fisheries Division or the $350,000 house for the Wildlife Division.” 

“That’s my motion,” he said, “that we deny that budget at this stage until the department comes back to us with information about the need, the cost, and the planning for that in much greater detail.” 

Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik said it would be “nice” to have the preliminary budget approved so the department could continue planning for the projects. 

But Crank was adamant in his protests — and newly elected Commission President Pete Dube joined the call for more details on the budget items. 

“I don’t think that the commission has a problem with the priority of setting aside money to do one of those a year,” Dube said. “It’s more along the lines, [what is] the actual expense after kind of getting our hands slapped over there in Newcastle.”

Nesvik said the department has already established a team to come up with two or three housing specifications, “basically pre-designed layouts for department-provided housing.” 

“The idea will be in the future, depending on the construction and details of the location, we’ll pick from the menu of three,” Nesvik said. 

Crank also took steps to ensure the commission could stay on top of costs. 

“Going forward, any change orders on any construction projects versus doing that exceeds $1,000 needs to be brought in front of the commission for approval,” he said. 

Commissioner David Rael questioned whether the approval process would slow progress, but Nesvik assured commissioners it would not. 

“We own this one,” Nesvik said. “We need to be able to deal with it.” 

Those weren’t the only projects affected, either. 

One of the commission’s top priorities is to construct employee housing in Jackson, to mitigate the high cost of living in Teton County. In previous planning meetings, the commission made clear they wanted the housing project to be owned by the department (rather than rented) and built on state-owned land. 

The only place suitable for building that meets those requirements is South Park Wildlife Habitat Management Area, where the department hopes to build seven to 10 houses. 

Deputy Game and Fish Director John Kennedy said that “defining what this scope is on South Park, and how big we want this thing to be, is important for the department to know right now so that we can move forward and get somebody on board that can do the type of work that we need done.” 

The commission authorized $15,000 for construction consultation in the wildlife management area. 

But Crank warned the project should not waste funds paid to the department by sportsmen’s fees, permits and taxes on outdoor sporting equipment. 

“We don’t want this to look like a golf course where we have 10 houses on 100 acres,” Crank said. “Or we’ll get kicked in the head again, just like we got kicked in the head for the Newcastle warden station.” 

However, President Dube warned of moving too slowly in the process. 

“You know, the longer we wait, the higher the housing costs are going to be,” he said. “I don’t want to get behind the eight ball here to where we didn’t build anything and then our costs are tripled and quadrupled.”