Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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Audit: DEC needs more resources

Albany — The state comptroller’s office has warned New York lawmakers to increase resources for the Department of Environmental Conservation.

An audit report from Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli released earlier this month noted that staffing has been cut more than 10 percent since 2003-04.

And, the audit says, “Since (fiscal year) 2007-08, funding from State sources (for the Department) is down 15.1 percent.”

Increased federal funding helped fill the gap, DiNapoli said, “But those resources are now declining as well.”

The audit looked at DEC revenue and expenses for 11 fiscal spending periods, from 2003-04 through 2013-14.

In 2003, all funding allocated for the DEC was $916.6 million.  By 2013-14, total state spending for DEC was $898.7 million – 22.1 percent less when corrected for inflation. 

And, the audit says, DEC resources are targeted to continue in decline, dropping “by 25.9 percent from the (fiscal year) 2013-14 actual figure of $1.016 billion to $753.6 million in (fiscal year) 2017-18.”

Conservation Fund

The comptroller’s office found fluctuation in the state Conservation Fund, an account established in 1925 to support activities related to fish, wildlife and marine resources.

“The Fund receives revenues from various sources, including all revenues from the sale of hunting, trapping and fishing licenses, which represents its largest source of revenue,” the audit said.

“When controlled for inflation, disbursements from the Fund increased by a total of 2.1 percent over the period examined

“The cash balance in the Conservation Fund has varied from a high of $37.6 million in 2012-13 to a low of $3.0 million in 2004-05.”

Receipts from license sales and other sources ranged from a low $36.3 million in 2005-06, to a high of $47.3 million in 2012-13.

Disbursements from the Conservation Fund reached $52.7 million in 2013-14 from a low of $31 million in 2005-06. The audit projects Conservation Fund disbursements will “decline slightly” to $52.3 million next year. 

Job losses

Audit findings also showed DEC lost a total 300 full-time jobs, cut from 3,256 full-time equivalent positions in 2003 to 2,917 this year.

But the DEC payroll grew from $197.7 million in 2003-04 to $235.4 million in 2013-14. 

Even with payroll costs rising, staffing cuts were not equal across all DEC programs.

The audit found that, since 2003, “the largest cuts fell on administration,” with a 26.3 percent loss in jobs. 

Staff numbers at DEC’s Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources are down 4.9 percent from 2003; and Forest and Land Resources staff dropped 3.4 percent in that time.

New state mandates

Despite state budget cuts, 13 new initiatives have been added to DEC’s duties since 2003, most involving additional regulatory oversight.

New programs mandated by law include invasive species control; transportation of crude oil through New York by rail and barge; the Waste Tire Recycling and Management Act and regulation of shale gas development.

Beyond duties that require DEC to monitor environmental standards, such as air pollution permits and toxic waste spills, the department statewide is responsible for: “285 state forests comprising

787,000 acres; 85 Wildlife Management Areas comprising 200,000 acres; 2.9 million acres of forest preserve; 52 campgrounds in the Adirondack and Catskill parks; 53 endangered species, 35 threatened species and 58 species of special concern; more than 100 game fish and game animal species and 12 fish hatcheries, raising 11 species of game fish and several endangered species … and four summer youth camps.”

The audit warned the governor and lawmakers to rethink DEC’s budget. “Failure to manage wildlife populations sustainably could lead to reductions in species that are important for recreational purposes, or that some New Yorkers rely upon as a source of sustenance,” DiNapoli’s report said.

The audit claims DEC is stretched thin between funding, regulatory responsibility and staff.

“The combination of increased responsibilities, reduced staffing, and ongoing fiscal pressure raises questions regarding the DEC’s capacity to carry out its critical functions,” DiNapoli charged.

DEC Media Director Thomas Mailey defended state allocations under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who took office in 2010 – seven years into the audit period. 

“This administration has devoted more than $16 billion for infrastructure, resiliency, clean energy and environment programs, while also investing in new technologies and streamlined management systems to make this agency more efficient,” Mailey said.

Green reprieve

Environmental groups responded to the audit, demanding increased funding for DEC and for the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.

Peter Iwanowicz, executive director at Environmental Advocates of New York, based in Albany, said DEC “staff do exceptional work to protect the environmental and improve our health, but their workload has increased and they are under increasingly challenging circumstances.”

Environmental Advocates conducted its own research last year and had already found “DEC staff lack the capacity to enforce many laws.”

EPF raid

DiNapoli’s office also audited Environmental Protection Fund spending, where money has been swept for use in the state’s general fund.

“Pay-as-you-go spending from the EPF provides significant funding for environmental programs with current State resources,” the comptroller’s audit said. “However, EPF funds have also been

transferred to the General Fund for budget relief.  In addition, $433.6 million in public authority bonds have been issued to offset the impact of a portion of these sweeps, creating a debt service cost for repayment of principal and interest where one had not previously been envisioned.” 

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