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December 27, 2008

Democrat & Chronicle

DEC facing a tough environment in 2009

For New York's environment, 2009 may be a year of both blessings and curses.

The state Legislature, when it begins work early in January, will be asked to consider draconian budget cuts that could have a considerable impact on environmental programs.

In his first-ever budget proposal released two weeks ago, Gov. David Paterson recommended cutting funding at the Department of Environmental Conservation by 8 percent in the coming fiscal year, on top of a 10 percent reduction in operational spending in the middle of the current year. Paterson is trying to close an estimated $13.7 billion shortfall in the coming fiscal year, which begins April 1.

Between mid-year cuts this year, and Paterson's proposed reductions next year, more than 320 jobs at the agency face the ax.

"It's likely that DEC staffing will fall to its lowest level in 20 years," said Laura Haight, senior environmental analyst for the New York Public Interest Research Group. "There's two consequences of having not enough staff. Less work is done. But the other risk — and this is what the Pataki administration did — is they just move toward a rubber-stamping approach. They get the permits out, but nobody's looked at them." Of equal concern is the state's Environmental Protection Fund, which supports everything from local recycling programs and landfills to open-space acquisition and waterfront revitalization. Its funding was to rise to $300 million next year from $255 million, but Paterson proposes to slash it to $205 million instead.

Money for farmland protection would be sliced nearly in half and waterfront revitalization funding cut by two-thirds. A $9 million line item for grants to zoos, gardens and aquariums would be completely eliminated, according to a budget summary given to environmental groups by state officials.

An alliance of 25 counties, including Monroe, that funnels grants to local agencies for water-quality projects on the Finger Lakes and Lake Ontario shoreline would have its funding cut from $2.3 million to $1.2 million.

"It's huge for us. We feel this is a tremendous, tremendous cut, and it will have significant impacts on the environment," said Kristy LaManche, the alliance's program coordinator. The group, based in Penn Yan, Yates County, is planning to mount a letter-writing campaign seeking to retain full funding.

Revenue stream

Because it supports such a wide variety of activities, the fund has always been extremely popular with local governments and environmentalists. But it's also been a political football, and advocates have had to battle repeatedly to keep it intact. In his proposed 2009-10 budget, Paterson would shift the fund's primary source of money to other uses, and replace it with a new revenue stream. But state lawmakers have refused for 20 years to seize that revenue stream — unclaimed deposits from beverage containers.

New York's 25-year-old bottle law doesn't specify the fate of those unclaimed deposits. Distributors, saying they need the money to cover their costs, now keep the deposits, and the state Senate has always resisted amending the law to stake the government's claim on the money.

Advocates fear that legislators could remove the existing revenue but again refuse to approve use of the bottle deposit money, leaving the environmental fund with little money.

"That would totally devastate this program," Haight said.

There are some bright spots. A new state revenue source should begin generating millions of dollars to be used for as-yet-undefined energy-efficiency programs.

And on a grander scale, President-elect Barack Obama's promised economic stimulus package may well include billions of dollars for environmental projects. New York already has assembled a list of sewer and road projects that might qualify. A half-dozen small sewer projects in Rochester-area communities are on the list to potentially receive federal low-cost loans or grants.

"The stars are lining up for a real boost in this type of effort," Haight said. "That would be a bright spot."

Some DEC initiatives would go forward even with the cutbacks proposed by Paterson. For instance, the Pollution Prevention Institute, a year-old entity based at Rochester Institute of Technology, would get its promised $3 million, according to budget documents.

State officials insist funding will remain in place to purchase and preserve undeveloped lands owned by the city of Rochester around the last two pristine Finger Lakes — Hemlock and Candice. And money to pay for study and cleanup of contaminated sites like the well-publicized one in Victor will not be reduced, they say.

"We anticipate no change to the cleanups," said DEC spokeswoman Maureen Wren.

Environmentalists do worry about other initiatives that are already behind schedule, such as preparation of a groundwater cleanup plan and efforts to reduce harmful emissions from diesel engines in vehicles owned by or hired by the state.

"DEC hasn't even finalized the regulations," Haight said of the diesel-reduction program, which was supposed to be finished next year. "The cost is the problem. Anything that costs money is going to go slow."

Staff cuts

Just two years ago, Haight and other advocates were relieved when Eliot Spitzer became governor and immediately began restoring jobs at the agency. Environmentalists had complained that his predecessor, George Pataki, had gutted the agency's staff in a series of reductions over his 12 years in office.

But the modest staffing recovery that began under Spitzer was largely wiped out this year. A hiring freeze cost the DEC 83 jobs through attrition this year.

Paterson's proposal for the upcoming fiscal year would eliminate an additional 241 jobs at the agency, which now employs about 3,700 people.

In testimony before a state Assembly committee in early December, Executive Deputy Commissioner Stuart Gruskin contended that the agency's mid-year cutbacks "would not shortchange the environment," but he acknowledged that activities such as permit issuance, inspections and waste-site cleanups would be slowed.

That problem would be exacerbated if staff is cut further in next year's budget, advocates said.

Haight also complained that Paterson still intends to press forward with more cuts to address a $1.7-billion deficit in this year's budget. The governor had tried and failed to persuade legislators to enact those cuts last month, but is going to ask again in the new year. Meanwhile, Haight said, agencies such as the DEC have been instructed to reduce spending as if lawmakers had approved the cuts.

This could devastate outside groups that believe they're going to get promised grants from the DEC in this budget year, she said. "There's a lot of pain in this proposal, and a lot of illogic," she said.

From environmentalists' perspectives, one positive aspect of the proposal is inclusion of water and other non-carbonated beverage containers in the state's bottle bill, meaning consumers would pay a 5-cent deposit on such containers. Paterson budget officials pitch it as an economic boost, estimating that seizing the unclaimed nickels from an expanded bottle bill would generate $118 million in new revenue.

Environmentalists, who have pressed the idea for years as a way of reducing waste, remain wary of relying on that money to underwrite the environmental fund.

The budget document also includes a number of new environment-oriented fees and taxes, ranging from a new $10 charge to trout and salmon anglers to a boost in water-pollution permit fees that officials say would raise an estimated $5 million more in revenue.

The one, larger source of "green" state revenue would come from the sale of carbon credits through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

The 10-state RGGI group requires power generators burning fossil fuels to purchase allowances for each ton of carbon dioxide their plants will emit. The second RGGI auction, and the first in which New York state participated, raised $106.5 million in bidding on Dec. 17. That money will be split among the 10 states.

New York intends to spend its share on energy- and pollution-related programs, but officials haven't decided yet what they would be.


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