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DEP Citizens Advisory Council: The Consistent Cuts To DEP’s Budget Are Unsustainable
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June is budget crunch time, and just to remind Senate and House members and Gov. Wolf what real people have said about more than a decade of cuts to the Department of Environmental Protection’s state budget, PA Environment Digest is reprinting this story about a letter sent to the General Assembly by DEP’s Citizens Advisory Council--

The independent Citizens Advisory Council Tuesday unanimously approved the text of a letter to Senate and House Appropriations Committee Chairs expressing serious concerns about current funding levels at the Department of Environmental Protection saying, in part, “consistent cuts to DEP over the last 2 decades has reached an unsustainable level.”

The Council said, “Over the last 14 years, DEP has diligently done more with less funding, less staff, and less resources while fixed costs have continued to rise and unfunded mandates, both at the state and federal level, have also sharply risen.

“The General Fund appropriation for the Department has decreased steadily from a high of $245.6M in FY 2002-03 to the current $152 million in the proposed FY 2017-18 Budget.

“At the same time, reliance on federal funding including augmentations and special funds where appropriate have risen to cover the decreasing General Fund dollars, but this solution also has finite applicability.

“To respond to this gap, DEP has looked to the regulated community for increased permit and annual fees just to cover the general cost of operation and staffing levels to handle the increased permitting and inspection requirements that have been instituted on the department through legislation and the courts.”

The letter also points out DEP has received several letters from federal agencies citing failure to meet minimum federal program standards in the Safe Drinking Water and Mining Programs due to staff shortages.

The Council gives DEP credit for its initiatives in electronic permitting and to get consultants/applicants to submit complete permit applications in the first place to get permit reviews done on time with dwindling staff.

The Council noted, “Legislative proposals to shorten review time that do not include increased funding for staff resources to complete reviews nor an exemption from this provision merely compound the problem as well as stifle economic development.”

Both the Council’s letter and Acting DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said at the meeting DEP faces a particular problem with significant numbers of employees reaching the 30+ years of service milestone.  McDonnell noted 319 employees are now at that milestone and another 213 will reach it by June 30-- that’s 22 percent of DEP’s staff.

In addition to concerns about basic funding, Council also pointed to other more specific funding and program issues that need resolution by the General Assembly.

“We look forward to working with the Legislature to extend the sunset date for the Recycling Fund [and recycling fee] in Act 101, making improvements to the Covered Device Recycling Act, and finding a funding solution for the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund that is dwindling due to the cessation of the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax and the Storage Tank Fund that needs addressed by June 30, 2017.”

A copy of the letter approved by Council is available online.

The text of the letter follows--

The Citizens Advisory Council is writing to you today to encourage a more adequate funding level be appropriated for the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2107-18 Budget.

Over the last 14 years, DEP has diligently done more with less funding, less staff, and less resources while fixed costs have continued to rise and unfunded mandates, both at the state and federal level, have also sharply risen.

The General Fund appropriation for the Department has decreased steadily from a high of $245.6M in FY 2002-03 to the current $152 million in the proposed FY 2017-18 Budget.

At the same time, reliance on federal funding including augmentations and special funds where appropriate have risen to cover the decreasing General Fund dollars, but this solution also has finite applicability.

To respond to this gap, DEP has looked to the regulated community for increased permit and annual fees just to cover the general cost of operation and staffing levels to handle the increased permitting and inspection requirements that have been instituted on the department through legislation and the courts.

The staff and the leadership of the DEP have always diligently risen to the challenge to uphold the mission of the agency, but it is time we recognize they need our help as well.

There are also several funds that will require legislative action before this fiscal year is out.

Over the last year, it has become apparent that DEP needs additional support from the General Fund or through fee increases to maintain service and retain delegated authorities from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in several areas.

The letter dated December 30, 2016 from EPA Water Protection Deputy Jon Capacasa indicates that DEP staffing levels have fallen well below adequate to retain primacy of the Safe Drinking Water Program.

A loss of primacy will mean a loss of direct funds for staff in the Safe Drinking Water Program including regional staff such as Sanitary Enforcement Officers and other who inspect and work with the over 9,200 drinking water systems across the Commonwealth as well at $100 million in federal funds for the PennVest program.

The current fee proposal of $7.5 million seeks to make up the diminished General Fund appropriation, but that fee will ultimately be paid by every citizen on a public water system passed through by the managing company or municipality.

The program will work to find efficiencies through electronic permitting and inspection but that cannot replace the one on one interaction with inspectors or the time needed by a permit reviewer to review and approve a permit that will withstand legal scrutiny, especially with the large number of small municipal systems maintained in Pennsylvania.

DEP has five fee packages pending to try to cover similar funding shortfalls across the agency.

Please also be aware that whenever many water related permits are challenged, a provision of the Clean Streams Law allows for the collection of attorney’s fees should the challenger prevail.

That means DEP pays out of the Clean Water Fund as DEP is the defender of the permit, not the permittee nor the licensed professional who generated the application. The statutory authority falls squarely on DEP. 

Legislative proposals to shorten review time that do not include increased funding for staff resources to complete reviews nor an exemption from this provision merely compound the problem as well as stifle economic development.

Other areas that the EPA and the Office of Surface Mining have cautioned the department on staffing inadequacies include but are not limited to the Bureau of Air Quality and the Mining Program.

An audit of both programs concluded the staffing levels were becoming insufficient to administer the programs as well as the augmentations against these funds for staff were becoming inappropriate but DEP lacks the appropriate level of funding on the general funds under Environmental Program Management and Environmental Program Operations to compensate the necessary staff.

The Mining Program faces extra issues in FY 2017-18 because 30 percent of the staff eligible for the early retirement offered by Governor Wolf are located in this program, most of that staff are located in regional offices where permitting and inspection activities occur.

The key issue for DEP is how to maintain a balance of the appropriate level of well trained staff to execute the mission of the agency while adjusting to changes in legal authorities due to statutes or legal precedent, right to know compliance, working with permit applicants and holders, and responding to citizens.

DEP is charged with reviewing permit applications and approving applications that comport with the protective environmental standards for that action.

DEP is vigorously doing its part to have more administratively complete and technically adequate applications come through the door by offering pre-application meetings with applicants, consultants, and DEP staff, improving technical guidance and fact sheets related to permits, turning to electronic permitting to require applications be filled out completely and properly before submission, and engaging stakeholders in listening sessions across program to identify permitting inconsistencies and develop work groups to address technical issues.

However, all of these improvements cannot completely make up for the time needed for review of a permit by a physical person.

The best way to increase DEP’s ability to review permits in a timelier manner to improve economic development is to increase the General Fund appropriations to DEP.

The alternative is to continue down the path where the regulated community shoulders all of the burden through permit, annual, and inspection fees which may make certain business activities unobtainable for many small to medium businesses and industries currently in distress. 

All of Pennsylvania’s citizens benefit from economic development being conducted in an environmentally conscious manner, making it a worthy application of our precious tax dollars. 

We hope you will consider our endorsement of additional funding for the department as you work on the arduous task of setting the budget for the next fiscal year.

We are aware that everyone will be approaching you with the expectations for additional funds, but the consistent cuts to DEP over the last 2 decades has reached an unsustainable level.

We look forward to working with the Legislature to extend the sunset date for the Recycling Fund in Act 101, making improvements to the Covered Device Recycling Act, and finding a funding solution for the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund that is dwindling due to the cessation of the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax and the Storage Tank Fund that needs addressed by June 30, 2017.

Thank you for your consideration and if you need any further information or have any questions concerning the Council, please contact [Lee Ann Murray,] Council’s Acting Executive Director, at 717-705-2693.

Sincerely,

William Fink, Chairman, Citizens Advisory Council

For more information, visit DEP’s Citizens Advisory Council webpage or contact Lee Ann Murray, Executive Director, P. O. Box 8459, Harrisburg, PA 17105-8459, 717-705-2693, LeeMurray@pa.gov.

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[Posted: June 9, 2017]


6/12/2017

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