December 18, 2008
Guv's budget plan hits local environmental programs
Local environmental programs that rely on a helping hand from the state could be left scrambling for money under Gov. David A. Paterson's proposed budget, which reduced a key state environmental fund by 19 percent and entirely eliminated some categories such as Long Island waterfront revitalization and aid to aquariums and zoos.
There would also be fewer people at the Department of Environmental Conservation to watch polluters, regulate hazardous waste and enforce wildlife and state lands laws. A hiring freeze and proposed $91.8 million budget cut would eliminate 240 positions from the DEC next year, even as it tries to recover from staff cuts in the 1990s.
Advocates fear the economic climate will jeopardize advances in regulating polluters, improving water quality and acquiring open space. "The cuts are more than dramatic. They're crippling," said Adrienne Esposito of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, citing Paterson's proposal to cut the Environmental Protection Fund from $255 million to $205 million.
Over the past two years, that money helped Island municipalities fight invasive species, buy farmland development rights and upgrade sewage treatment plants. Under Paterson's budget, the first two funding categories would be cut 70 percent and 41 percent, respectively, and waterfront revitalization money that paid for the upgrades would no longer be available on the Island.
No fund money for aquariums will hurt educational programs at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation at Atlantis Marine World Aquarium, said foundation director Rob DiGiovanni.
Paterson also wants to shore up the general fund with $207 million in real estate transfer tax revenue that would otherwise have gone to the environmental fund. The shortfall would be partly replaced by expanding the bottle deposit law to include water and noncarbonated beverages. Unclaimed deposits that now go to the beverage industry would be directed to the environmental fund, providing an estimated $118 million each year.
While most advocates support expanding the bottle bill, some object to swapping out the steady money from the real estate tax with revenue from a proposed law that has not passed the Legislature. "We're being asked to take a stable funding source and trade it away for an unproven and nonexistent funding source," said Kevin McDonald, public lands director for the Nature Conservancy on Long Island.
The DEC issued its own plea for resources earlier this year in its core mission budget report. The report detailed all DEC programs, many mandated but underfunded.
Staff reductions were a particular concern for hazardous and solid waste programs, which the agency said were "in jeopardy" because of lack of personnel. A DEC spokeswoman said Long Island did not have the backlogs in permit reviews and inspections described in the report.
But the region is affected by the agency's inability to review water pollution permits in a timely fashion. The DEC said it had not complied with federal and state time frames since staff cuts in the 1990s, and that despite some improvements, the agency had still reviewed only half those needed to comply with the Clean Water Act.
"It's a regulatory agency that has a huge mandate," said Josh Nachowitz, state policy director for the New York League of Conservation Voters. "Commissioner [Pete] Grannis is doing a great job with what he has ... but we have concerns for the entire agency's mission if they lose any more staff than they've already lost."