Comptroller questions if DEC funding is enough

Elizabeth Izzo

Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Jan 29, 2021

In a report released Thursday, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli questioned whether the state Department of Environmental Conservation is receiving enough funding to carry out its duties, which have expanded significantly over the past decade as the state Legislature adopted new laws and the state acquired more land for protection and recreation.

The report will likely come as no surprise to residents of the Adirondacks, where many DEC staff live, including forest rangers and environmental conservation officers. The forest rangers’ union and green groups have been vocal for years about their desire to see more ranger staffing and resources in the Adirondacks as the state adds land to its Forest Preserve.

DiNapoli said the DEC’s annual capital spending rose by $342.9 million between 2010 and 2020, allowing new land purchases and investments in water infrastructure and other long-term assets.

“But spending from State Operating Funds, which pays for most of the agency’s regulatory and environmental management work, fell by $29.4 million, a reduction of 10%,” he said. “Whether this decline has affected DEC’s ability to fulfill its expanding role is open to question.”

He added, “Clearly, New Yorkers have a vital interest in the protection and management of our environment. Intensifying fiscal pressures and an expanding mission require consideration of whether the DEC has the resources necessary to carry out its critically important functions. This report is intended to stimulate and inform such discussion and debate.”

The comptroller’s report not only underscores how the DEC’s responsibilities have grown over the past decade but how its role will continue to expand in the coming years as it implements recent legislation to address climate change, including the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, the Climate Smart Communities Program and the Community Risk and Resiliency Act.

“Among other important new initiatives, DEC is also charged with overseeing $3.9 billion in appropriations in support of clean water infrastructure projects, and managing a variety of programs aimed at mitigating specific types of pollution,” the report reads.

DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said on Thursday that his department is reviewing the comptroller’s report.

“The governor’s proposed Executive Budget includes sustained funding for New York’s environment, which will allow DEC to continue our vital work protecting the health of our residents and our environment,” Seggos said. “DEC continues to identify new technologies and best management practices to more strategically and efficiently undertake our critical work, and support the state’s ongoing efforts to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Adirondack environmental advocacy groups responded swiftly to the comptroller’s report, hailing his office for reviewing the issue.

“We are pleased to see Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has confirmed in dollars and cents what seemed to be common sense: that the DEC is doing much more than it did decades ago, but the funding to carry out its mission hasn’t kept pace,” Adirondack Council Executive Director William Janeway said in a statement.

“In the Adirondack Park, the DEC needs additional planners, engineers, trail builders, land managers, lake/boat-launch stewards, summit stewards, forest rangers and conservation officers, to name just a few,” added Janeway, a former DEC regional director. “Overuse of wilderness, the spread of invasive species, the need for new water systems and new sewage systems will all require greater investments by the DEC in the years ahead. The DEC needs more staff and more money to make that happen.

“The alternative to investing in DEC is to stand by and witness a steady decline in environmental quality across the Adirondacks, as solvable problems like road salt, highway runoff, trail erosion and invasive species continue to overwhelm our waters,” Janeway said. “Overuse would continue to degrade and punish our wildest lands and rarest wildlife. Smog and acid rain would go unchecked and unreported and could continue unabated.