Legislators pressed state environmental officials Monday to partner with municipalities, civic groups and corporate sponsors to preserve recreation, conservation and protection programs.
But Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commission officials said they already utilize these options. And while they remain open to new budget solutions, staffing and service cuts and closures are likely to worsen before things get better.
“We assume the cavalry is not coming,” Michael Sullivan, deputy commissioner for environmental quality, told members of the legislature’s Environment Committee during a mid-morning meeting at DEEP headquarters in Hartford. “We have no good decisions right now.”
“We’re going to make it through Labor Day as is, and then reassess,” Commissioner Rob Klee told legislators. The department, which faces the heaviest demand for its services between late May and early September, is working with a budget that provides about $10 million less than anticipated for the new fiscal year that began July 1.
And Klee said that has translated into:
- Closures and reduced hours at parks, campgrounds, nature centers and other facilities;
- Lifeguard services at just seven of 23 swimming sites;
- And the merger of fish hatcheries in Kensington and Burlington.
Staffing reductions also mean slower response times to spills, animal nuisance calls and park and boating incidents, as well as longer processing times for environmental permits and reviews.
The guiding principle, the commissioner said, has been to prioritize.
Pollution spills and other events that threaten environmental quality get high priority.
The same goes for animal nuisance calls. A bear in a back yard that is likely to move on is not as important as a bear spotted near a busy interstate that could cause an accident.
Parks, campgrounds and nature centers with the heaviest usage were prioritized over less popular sites, said Deputy Commissioner Susan Whalen, who oversees parks and environmental conservation programs.
The department already is coming off of a tough fiscal year, Klee said.
It’s $70.8 million General Fund budget for 2015-16 was reduced by nearly 5 percent because of various state budget deficit-mitigation efforts.
That meant plans to add about 20 staffers not only were postponed, but about 30 retirees weren’t replaced.
The preliminary $71.4 million budget legislators and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy established for DEEP in 2016-17 now is down to $63.9 million.
The department lost another $1.8 million to help the administration achieve omnibus savings targets built into the budget. And more than $600,000 additional is tied up in new responsibilities placed on DEEP, such as overseeing about $40 million in fine art at the Old State House building.
All totaled, the department effectively is left with $61.5 million. That’s down 7.5 percent from last fiscal year, and almost 14 percent below the preliminary 2016-17 budget.
Department staffing, which already is down 20 percent from 2008, not only won’t grow this year, Klee added, but needs to shrink by about 30 retirements — left unfilled — for the agency budget to remain in balance.
Further complicating matters, the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis says there’s a $1.3 billion hole built into state finances in the next fiscal year, a gap of about 7 percent.
But legislators said they aren’t convinced declining state resources must mean conservation and environmental protection services must shrink year after year.
“You’re not on offense, you’re on defense,” Rep. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, said. “You folks, I think, are stuck in a model that’s dead.”
The department has opportunities to grow revenues. Partnering with philanthropic groups or corporations could expand park hours and, in turn, generate more use fees for the state, he said.
Rep. Melissa Ziobron of East Haddam, ranking GOP representative on the Appropriations Committee, charged that bureaucracy and poor communication has prevented the department from harnessing private resources that could bolster park and other services.
“You don’t utilize it to its best and highest use,” she said.
But Klee responded that the department already charges the maximum fees allowed under statute at most facilities under its control.
And while it does work with philanthropic groups, that is unlikely to raise enough support to offset the hefty cuts the department has faced in recent years.
Some necessary services, Klee said, simply don’t attract sponsorship.
“You never find a friends’ group to clean the bathrooms,” he said.
Whalen noted that DEEP has developed sponsorships with food chains like Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway, and is exploring one with Bass Pro Shops. But legislators cannot forget, she added, that the department has an important regulatory role, and that can’t be compromised by fundraising.
“Can someone under a consent order write a (sponsorship) check?” she asked. “Do we want Enron State Park?”
Sen. Stephen T. Cassano, D-Manchester, urged DEEP officials to consider partnerships with municipalities, but they responded that local budgets often are strained just as state finances are.
Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr., D-Branford, co-chair of the Environment Committee, said Connecticut should look to other states as models, adding he believes residents would accept some new environment-related fees if convinced all of the funds would be dedicated to conservation efforts.
“We treat these parks and forests almost as a liability,” Kennedy said. “These are important economic assets.”
Department officials and committee members agreed to continue meeting this summer and fall to discuss options to mitigate the impact of budget cuts.