DEC: Death by a Thousand Cuts

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has sustained so many losses in resources and staff under the Paterson Administration that it’s now on life-support. Further planned cuts will have devastating impacts on land preservation, air quality enforcement, and the rest of DEC’s core mission. But somewhere inside the fog of numbers is an even more dismal story: the situation is so bleak that the agency currently doesn’t even have the staff to secure available federal money that could help keep some critical programs alive.

As a result, New York’s environment suffers. Important environmental programs are lost – all because no one was there to fill out the paperwork that could secure a federal check to fund them.

Consider the Riverhead Foundation’s application for a federal grant – in partnership with DEC – of more than $1 million a year for three years to conduct aerial surveys of endangered sea turtles in the Atlantic. The proposal would have allowed marine and wildlife scientists to develop protection measures for a species whose survival has become a national urgency. DEC turned down the grant because it no longer had the staff to administer it.

Endangered species haven’t done so well in general as DEC takes further budget hits.  The agency also terminated its staff position of Marine Endangered Species Coordinator and doesn’t have anyone to write and oversee a grant to the feds to restore it.

One of that coordinator’s projects was an Acoustic Whale Monitoring program, which was developing a system of acoustic buoys to monitor the migration paths of whales around New York in order to prevent their collisions with ships. In the first and only year of the program, Cornell University partnered with DEC and documented blue, fin, humpback, and even endangered right whales (only 300 survive in the North Atlantic) all along our waters, some a few miles from the Statue of Liberty. The study had wide, bi-partisan support for the program in the legislature, but it was dropped, two years short of establishing viable data.  There’s federal money available to continue the program, but since there is no longer a state coordinator, DEC can’t apply for or administer a federal grant.

There’s more. DEC’s Division of Law Enforcement (DLE) –  environmental cops fighting poachers, polluters, and increasingly (and sadly) meth lab operators – has multiple mandates and programs funded by federal grants, including its large fleet of state law enforcement vessels that patrol New York City’s harbors in conjunction with Homeland Security. DLE also has a joint enforcement agreement with the FDA to inspect fish and food markets and the National Marines Fisheries – all programs and staff that could be placed at risk with further cuts. Remarkably, a tiny civilian staff of 10 has supported the force, which dwindled to 306 staff in the past year.  The diminishing of a law enforcement bureau, one that responds to nearly 20,000 calls from the public every year simply would not be tolerated in similar agencies like the state troopers or the Port Authority police.

How did it get this bad at DEC?

Part of the problem is that Gov. Paterson has cut DEC at disproportionate levels throughout these past few brutal fiscal years. Most agencies have sustained cuts along the lines of 5-10 percent, but DEC has suffered well over double. If all of this year’s proposed staff cuts are implemented, the agency will have shrunk 25 percent since 2008, putting DEC’s workforce at its lowest ebb in decades. And the amount of resources the agency needs to do its job (equipment, transportation) will be half of its 2008 amount.

Another problem is the bean-counter mentality that seems to drive the overall budget process, meaning there is an emphasis on headcount as a measure of fiscal responsibility (quantity versus quality). Little has been done to make DEC more productive or efficient within a reasonable range of budget cuts. As a result, staff is cut through layoffs, forced early retirements, or freezes with little attention to what may be the optimal mix of staffing that ought to be retained. Because of that cut-staff-at-all-cost impulse, the Division of Budget has left DEC, and likely other agencies, without the resources to even bring money in from alternative venues. When you’re strapped for cash – the last people you should fire are the ones bringing in extra money. That should be a no-brainer.

A government agency isn’t just the sum of its parts – but an interactive whole. Cut off a limb, and the entire system goes into shock. This is exactly what’s happening at DEC, and the incoming Cuomo administration will need to do everything it can to revive this dying agency.