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DEC cuts foreshadow tough times in state government

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The DEC has a staffing problem. Seriously.

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There's a new rules on the books. New Yorkers can’t feed the bears, even if they claim they're just trying to feed the birds.

"You might not have been intending to feed the bears but it does get to be a problem," explains Tom Tasber, an educator at the Finch Hollow Nature Center in Broome County. Bear education falls within his job description - but not bear enforcement. That’s the Department of Environmental Conservation’s job.

And not just bears. A trip to the DEC website brings home the wide range of its activity. The agency licenses crematoriums -- they create air emissions. It patrols fisheries.

And hands up if you knew this one was coming - the DEC regulates companies drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale.

This is particularly relevant as the state faces a budget crisis that could cause Governor Andrew Cuomo to shed up to 10,000 state workers. That could make the state and its agencies look really different. And that's on top of the steady drain that the DEC experienced during the Paterson administration, when cuts there were the highest of any major state agency, at just over 20 percent of its staff. 

The result of that round of cutting put the agency "on life-support," according the legislative director at the Natural Resource Defense Council.

“At this point there was no comfort zone” says Pete Grannis, DEC commissioner, under the Paterson administration. He was let go in October after a memo he wrote following the latest round of layoffs was leaked.

The DEC declined to comment on how their operations have been impacted since the Paterson cuts were made, but Grannis discussed his own concerns during his tenure.

“You ran out of options and you really start to cut into the core of what the public expects the department to do and to be able to do well,” Grannis asserts.

Grannis tells a story that comes up a lot when you talk to people about the DEC: budget reductions were so severe that officers were grounded, because there wasn’t money for gas.

"They were sitting at their desks. These highly trained officers, their patrols were cut by 40, 50 percent.”

And once the state is confronted with Marcellus drilling permits Grannis says, it will be able to do less. He says cuts already mean the agency can’t review as many permits and reports as it used to be able to.

“I think there’s going to be growing pressure, as spills aren’t responded to and hunters take advantage of the fact that we don’t have as many enforcement personnel in the field. There’s going to be a lot of unhappiness that we’re not going to be able to do the job that we have been traditionally expected to do.”

The spokesman for the state's Office of the Budget, Erik Kriss, says that reduction is the point. He describes the last year and a half as an effort to “refocus agencies on their core missions,” to make them do less with less.

Kriss says DEC reductions under the previous administration weren’t out of line with other agencies long-term. And he doesn’t want to speculate on the new administration’s plans for the agency - but he says budgets will remain tight.

“Not to go back to a cliché, but the idea of doing more with less is something I think everybody is acutely aware of now, and especially during a time when the governor has said we need to close a $10 billion dollar budget without raising taxes,” notes Kriss.

This idea of doing less will likely continue under the new DEC head, Joe Martens. He comes from a nonprofit conservation organization. And he’s suggested community groups may be expected to take a bigger role, saying for example that communities in the Adirondacks may have to step up to help take care of their forest.

Former WRVO/Central New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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