A change to the wording of the state’s Environmental Protection Fund — a pool of money used for capital projects that benefit the environment — has raised concern among environmental groups and elected officials.
“If all is well with staffing resources … why is the budget proposal trying to divert EPF money for staffing? The EPF was created to help with capital costs, and it has performed very well,” state Assemblyman Steve Englebright, a Democrat who represents portions of Long Island, asked state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos during a recent joint committee hearing on environmental conservation in Albany.
“Why does language in the Executive Budget propose to reverse long-standing tradition and allow the EPF money to be used for personnel services?” the Long Island Democrat added.
“We’re proposing a very modest, nominal ability to direct EPF dollars to personnel services, specifically for programs within the EPF,” Seggos replied, “not unlike how we operate the Clean Water Infrastructure Act. It’s a concept we’d be happy to work with DOB (state Division of Budget) and you all to further refine that.”
“That’s grand theft,” Englebright said. “We’re concerned. The precedent, once set, would be difficult to reverse.”
The EPF is currently funded at $300 million for this year, which is the funding that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has requested for the last several years. State Sen. Jen Metzger, a Democrat who represents portions of the Hudson Valley and Catskills, said during the hearing the DEC should simply increase funding for staffing rather than take money out of the EPF.
Jessica Ottney Mahar, state policy director for The Nature Conservancy, said the change in wording that would allow EPF money to be used for staffing is a serious concern.
“I only had five minutes to speak to the committee, so I spent my time on two issues: The first was the Environmental Protection Fund, and the second was climate change,” Ottney Mahar said in a phone interview.
“That EPF language has never included personnel services. The EPF, since it was created 26 years ago, has been really focused on providing funding for environmental projects and grants, and getting that money out into communities around the state: fighting invasive species, redeveloping waterfronts, conserving land and water, but also funding things like local recycling programs and helping farmers deal with water pollution.
“And the language in the governor’s budget doesn’t even limit how much can be used for staff; it just says ‘a portion.’ Who decides how much that is?”
Ottney Mahar said the new language appears in each of the four EPF accounts, which essentially means that “each of those 300 million dollars is fair game for use on agency staff,” she continued. “And we think agency staff are really important, (and) we support increasing agency staff, but this is not the way to do it.”
Ottney Mahar said the operating budget for the state, which includes pay for state employees, has been capped by Cuomo, even though the state’s environmental agencies — namely the DEC, Adirondack Park Agency, Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and others — were hit hardest by staff reductions during the financial collapse in the late 2000s.
“They’ve never really crawled back to the numbers where they need to be,” she said. “And now … there’s a lot for our agencies to be doing, and we think that the agency operating budgets should be increased.”
Peter Bauer, executive director of the Protect the Adirondacks advocacy group, also lamented the governor’s budget and use of the EPF
“Unfortunately, the governor’s budget plays a lot of games. For example, the governor is seeking to fund state agency position with monies from the Environmental Protection Fund. This has never been done before,” Bauer wrote in a press release. “The EPF has grown to $300 million and supports a wide variety of environmental program(s), but is currently under-funded.
“The EPF needs to be expanded to $500 million annually to meet challenges from open space protection, state land stewardship, invasive species protection, farmland protection, and climate change resiliency, solid waste management and recycling, among many other pressing needs. 2019 is the right time boost environmental spending by increasing the EPF.”
The Adirondack Council also said it was excited about another $300 million for the EPF but said the DEC’s budget for staff needs to be increased.
“The governor proposed five new operations staff for Frontier Town, and while that’s fantastic, we also need to add more rangers and land managers and planners,” Adirondack Council Policy Director Kevin Chlad said in an interview the day after he testified at the hearing. “The commissioner (Seggos) was very firm that they can do the job with the staff that they have, but I think we can see — especially when you look at the High Peaks — you can see impacts to the natural resources occurring, we can see visitor safety is threatened, and we’re losing our wilderness character in the High Peaks region. So I think that tells a different story.”