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Source: Newsday

Conservation groups worry about Cuomo's cuts

BY JENNIFER SMITH

Posted: January 31, 2011
Originally Published: January 27, 2011

As Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo warns lawmakers to prepare for some serious belt-tightening, advocates dismayed by last year's environmental spending cuts worry that the new governor's budget plan, due out next week, may inflict more pain.

Conservation groups have called on Cuomo to restore $88 million cut last year from the Environmental Protection Fund, which helps pay for landfill closures, open space conservation, recycling programs and other environmental projects.

Advocates have also urged the governor to go easy on the state Department of Environmental Conservation, whose workforce has shrunk by about 20 percent since 2008. Critics say staff reductions have compromised the agency's ability to protect natural resources, clean up hazardous waste and monitor pollution from power and sewage-treatment plants.

"We all recognize that it's going to be a rough budget year," said Laura Haight of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "When we're looking at such enormous cuts, it's a huge concern."

The state faces an estimated $9-billion to $11-billion budget deficit, and reports have been circulating that Cuomo's budget could include layoffs of as many as 10,000 state workers. Some predict the governor, whose administration is evaluating ways to shrink state government, could merge DEC with the state parks agency.

But no concrete details have leaked out on Cuomo's plans for environmental spending, nor on how heavy a share of future layoffs the DEC might bear.

"Any speculation about the budget is premature," Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto said.

The DEC recently laid off 138 workers as part of a year-end mandate from former Gov. David A. Paterson. Those cuts, along with a slew of early retirements, left agency staffing at its lowest level in decades.

"We have just the bare number of people to - if we're lucky - do the job minimally," said Wayne Bayer, a DEC employee and board member of the New York State Public Employees Federation.

The recent layoffs eliminated four positions from DEC's Long Island office, including environmental engineers who dealt with air quality and hazardous waste. Other spending cuts mean fewer staff trips from DEC's Albany office to monitor hazardous waste cleanups or meet with residents, said Bayer and environmental advocate Adrienne Esposito.

"There are decreased DEC visits to toxic waste sites, and there's no independent testing anymore of sewage discharge in our outfall pipes," said Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment in Farmingdale. "These are programs that really are the basis for protecting health and the public."

Advocates also want Cuomo to halt the practice of using money from the Environmental Protection Fund to plug holes in the state budget.

At least $854 million - 39 percent of total protection fund spending - has been swept to the general fund since 2002, according to a 2010 audit by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. Long Island has received some $208 million from the fund for environmental projects, according to the Nature Conservancy.

During his run for governor, Cuomo issued a detailed agenda for the state that said he would be an "environmental champion" and pledged to stop such sweeps - "as the state's fiscal position improves."

That day is unlikely to have arrived just yet. But in the absence of specific budget proposals, some conservation groups have nothing more to pin their hopes on than that.