Environmental Groups Urge Reinvestment In Two Agencies

Concerned that early retirements at environmental agencies will compound the effects of earlier staff reductions, 40 environmental groups are urging the Baker administration to lessen the impact of the latest departures.

As part of the effort to close what Gov. Charlie Baker identified as a $1.8 billion deficit in the fiscal 2016 budget, the governor and lawmakers passed legislation offering pension-sweetening incentives to encourage longtime employees to retire.

The law allows the administration to replace departing staffers systemwide as long as the total cost of the new hires doesn't exceed 20 percent of the payroll savings.

According to a letter the Coalition for DCR & DEP plans to hand-deliver to the governor's office on Monday, the Department of Conservation and Recreation has seen the number of fulltime-equivalent employees drop 25 percent from 2008, when they numbered 1,280, to this year when they numbered 960. Early retirements drop that number by another 120 leaving about 840 employees, according to the letter.

Similar losses have taken place at the Department of Environmental Protection, where the 925 fulltime-equivalent-employees in 2009 fell to 750 this year and dropped to 640 with the early retirements, the letter said.

"Even with new hires beyond the proposed 20 percent refill, these agencies will not function properly," says the letter, which was obtained by the News Service.

While Environmental League of Massachusetts (ELM) President George Bachrach said staffing cuts have already had an impact on parks and environmental regulation, the Baker administration pointed to the expansion of services and new service offered by both departments.

An administration official said 16 state parks facilities will have new extended hours, the administration expanded family movie night to five locations, and said the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) has 646 lifeguards on staff, the most in four years.

Every DCR pool and beach was open and staffed on the summer's opening weekend, the official told the News Service.

"Parks have already been closed," said Bachrach, who said park facilities are closed in Springfield, Sturbridge, Taunton and Andover and noted the state is entering a public-private partnership with Simmons College to rehabilitate Daley Field in Brighton, which had fallen into disrepair.

The Baker administration in May announced it was undertaking steps to increase accessibility at Massasoit State Park in Taunton, which were set to be completed by July 1.

The Conservation Law Foundation, the Massachusetts Sierra Club, Mass Audubon, Clean Water Action and several other local environmental groups signed onto the letter.

A former Democratic state senator, who said he would turn the Environmental League into a "more muscular" political force, Bachrach plans on holding Baker to his campaign promise that "over the course of my administration" he would raise environmental spending to 1 percent of the state budget.

Drafted after a series of midyear budget cuts, this year's budget bridged what Baker identified as a $1.8 billion gap between projected revenues and expenses. According to ELM, funding for environmental agencies in the budget amounted to $221 million, or 0.6 percent of the total budget.

The budget enacted by the Legislature last week and shipped to the governor's desk includes a hefty $11.5 million, or 14.7 percent increase for DCR over estimated fiscal 2015 levels, according to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. The total DCR budget would be $90.2 million.

The $58.7 million budget for the Department of Environmental Protection would be a $136,115 drop over estimated fiscal 2015 spending, though it is a $1.1 million, or 1.9 percent, increase over the amount budgeted for fiscal 2015, according to Senate Ways and Means.

Bachrach claimed that the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has failed to put in place regulations mandated by the Global Warming Solutions Act and said staffing reductions have meant the state is now slower cleaning up brownfields sites and responding to hazardous spills.

The environmental regulatory agency has expanded some aspects of its service. In April, DEP created the Office of Municipal Partnerships and Governmental Affairs and the Office of Permit and Regulatory Ombudsman and Special Projects.

An administration official also noted it has the option to call on departing senior employees for a limited period of time, allowing them to share expertise and institutional knowledge.


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