BY TOM HESTER SR.
Gov. Chris Christie is taking $65 million, the entire allocation, from the state's global warming fund, and $5.9 million, from the toxic waste site cleanup program, to help close the over $10 billion deficit in his $29.3 billion 2010-11 state budget, the state environmental protection commissioner said Monday.
In discussing the Department of Environmental Protection's proposed $380.6 million budget before the Assembly Budget Committee in Trenton, Commissioner Bob Martin said he hopes the loss of the $65 million, funding for the state's role in a regional effort to combat global warming, will only be for one year. He told the committee that DEP staff will continue to attempt to work against global warming and so-called greenhouses gasses despite the lack of money.
Martin said while he does not anticipate that DEP employees will be among the 1,300 state workers Christie plans to layoff in January, the commissioner does intend to move to save $1.4 million at that time by reducing the workweek of employees, at least those in management, the state parks, and Highlands Permitting from 40 hours to 35 hours.
Martin spoke of the multi-million funding loss as he vowed the DEP would aggressively move to remediate more than 20,000 contaminated sites in New Jersey and attempt to improve the quality of the state's air, water, beaches and ocean.
Martin also said that keeping the state parks and state-run historic sites open while attempting to improve them, especially for financially-struggling New Jerseyans and improving and streamlining the DEP's regulatory process are also priorities.
The DEP budget has been cut by $29.8 million with $11.6 million of the amount money that would have gone to managing the parks and historic sites. He said $3.4 million has been allocated for park and historic site improvement. The parks and sites have a long backlog of needed repairs and improvements that total $300 million.
"Let me state unequivocally that the governor and my commitment to protecting the environment and the health and safety of the people of New Jersey will not waver as we proceed with our efforts to streamline and enhance our operations,'' Martin said.
"While all parks and historic site remain open, the (2010-11) budget plan calls for the consolidation of parks and modifying some operating hours and amenities based on demand,'' Martin said. "We are also working to expand mission-appropriate business opportunities through concessions and partnerships, providing improved visitor amenities in parks, forests and historic sites that may ultimately enhance access and revenue potential.''
The commissioner said the Shore Protection Fund will be fully funded at $6.3 million while funding for the Pinelands commission has been reduced by $423,000 and by $463,000 for the Highlands Council.
Funding for the black bear management and education program has been eliminated. Martin said $3.5 million will be saved by cutting DEP aid to cities and towns by one-third and eliminating all aid to towns that receive $5,000 or less annually.
Martin described the DEP as broken, overworked and under staffed.
"We must and will make dramatic changes to how we fundamentally do business at the DEP,'' he said. "We need to make permitting and inspections timely and predictable. We need to play a key role in the economic growth of the state. All regulations need to be based on science, data, facts and a cost-benefit analysis. Individuals and business coming to the DEP must be treated like a customer.''
Martin said a review found that between 1995 and 2009, the Legislature and governors approved 450 bills placing new requirements on the DEP while the number of employees dropped from 3,700 to 2,995. He said the department has staff assigned to 57 commissions, 42 extraneous bodies and 30 federal external or national non-profit boards.
"We are reviewing everything we do, analyzing those things we need to do better as well as those things we can eliminate without adversely affecting delivery of our core programs,'' Martin said. "In some cases, we will be coming back to the Legislature for statutory fixes of those provisions that are overly constraining and in some cases contradictory. We may be coming to you to eliminate those boards, councils and commissions that have outlived their usefulness or are not performing the functions for which they were intended.''
After the hearing, New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel said the DEP budget is designed to dismantle many key environmental programs and cost the state so-called green jobs.
"Governor Christie has announced that he will cut money (the $65 million) for the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and $68 million in programs funded by RGGI will be eliminated,'' Tittel said.
RGGI, a compact with multiple states in the Northeast, was established to create programs that reduce the greenhouse gas footprint. Programs help pay for clean energy programs that reduce carbon and create jobs.
Tittel charged that by cutting the fund, the governor is hurting the environment and keeping green jobs out of the state.
"When it comes to clean energy and reducing greenhouse gases, this budget shows the governor is full of hot air," Tittel said. "He keeps taking money away from green jobs and clean energy programs, undermining the environment and costing us jobs as well.
"DEP is at its lowest level of funding in more than 25 years," Tittel said. "There won't be enough people at DEP to issue the permits required to protect public health and the environment and ensure that our economy gets going."
Tittel said Christie plans to take $15 million from the constitutionally-dedicated corporate business tax revenue, which traditionally goes to environmental programs like fixing parks or helping towns to do watershed planning to meet stormwater rules. The revenue would also go to retrofit diesel school buses.
"The commissioner talked about one-stop shopping and making the DEP easier for companies and developers, but forgot to mention the environment or the public,'' Tittel said. "Polluters and developers were at one time called ‘applicants'. Then they were called ‘responsible parties'. Now Commissioner Martin wants to call them ‘clients,' Who does DEP work for, the environment and the citizens of New Jersey or polluters?"