N.J. DEP to get smaller as Shore rebuilding looms

Posted: April 09, 2013

TRENTON - When Hurricane Sandy smashed into the Jersey Shore in October, it not only destroyed the homes and livelihoods of thousands, it left a matrix of potential environmental hazards.

Miles of shoreline had been denuded; business and homes were wrecked; debris needed to be safely removed.

Yet the New Jersey government agency that seemed best positioned to oversee a safe recovery, the Department of Environmental Protection, is smaller today than at any point since the early 1990s.

And it likely will get smaller.

Gov. Christie's proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 calls for reducing direct state appropriations from $214 million to about $211 million, a decline of about 1.5 percent. That comes on top of steady cuts to the department stretching back two decades, over Republican and Democratic administrations. The department reached a high of more than 4,000 workers in the early 1990s, dropped to about 3,000 by the time Christie took office, and has declined by 200 more positions since.

The next budget calls for the same number of funded positions at the DEP, about 2,812. But with a hiring freeze for state workers, the numbers are likely to drop once more, if only a bit.

The smaller DEP - and the governor's determination to keep it that way - has environmentalists insisting the administration is putting ideology ahead of the public good. Nonsense, says the Christie administration, which accuses the state's main environmental groups of outmoded thinking and partisan politics.

"Gov. Christie has made it clear that he wants smaller government in general; we understand that he is cutting government at all levels, and we are following that model," said Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for Bob Martin, the state DEP commissioner. "These are tough times, and our job is to protect the environment, but we also don't want to be an obstacle to progress in New Jersey."

In essence, the Christie administration argues that it can carry out core functions with a smaller budget and less staff. It has won high praise from state business leaders for its focus on lightening the DEP's regulatory touch and improving technology. Builders now can apply for permits online and track the process from laptops or iPhones.

"We have seen vast improvements over the past few years with the technology upgrades," said Sara Bluhm, a vice president for energy and the environment at the New Jersey Business and Industry Association. "When Commissioner Martin came in, he really set out to transform the department. He's done simple things like having customer service training."

Environmentalists are unmoved. David Pringle, spokesman for the New Jersey Environmental Federation, which endorsed Christie in 2009, said that although the governor outlined a promising agenda during his first campaign, his record since taking office has been a disappointment. Given the huge cleanup and rebuilding challenges facing the state as a consequence of Sandy, the DEP should be adding staff, not shrinking.

"We are the most densely populated state in the country, and with our industrial past, we bear more than our fair share of problems," Pringle said. "That requires vigilant watchdogging."

Added Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club: "When you don't have oversight, you end up having bigger problems later. It is not always deliberate. It is because people are being careless. They make more mistakes because they don't expect oversight."

The environmentalists, however, are having trouble convincing voters that there's a link between DEP staffing and environmental quality. Another daunting obstacle, analysts say, is the tenor of the current political climate.

With a 9.3 percent unemployment rate, one of the highest in the nation, New Jersey still is digging itself out from the recession of 2008 and 2009.

"In bad economic times, people are much more likely to support a pro-business environment," said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University.

The Christie administration says it is not an either/or proposition. According Ragonese, core functions have been bolstered, but efforts that never were central to the department's mission of protecting air and water quality have been pared.

Thus, he said, the DEP no longer helps oversee such tasks as the qualification process for property-tax abatements on woodlots managed for commercial harvesting.

And though environmentalists insist the DEP is woefully understaffed to oversee everything from plucking the remains of wrecked houses and cars from flooded Shore areas to restoring damaged beaches, Ragonese said no vigilance had been lost because the DEP has contracted out much of its added oversight to private companies.

Moreover, homeowners and businesses can rebuild without DEP permitting in advance so long as their engineers certify the projects comply, an effort to cut bureaucracy and speed the recovery, Ragonese said. The state expects these projects will comply with existing rules because they risk losing government aid if they don't. "Nobody is exempted from doing the proper paperwork," Ragonese said. "If they don't do it properly, they are not going to get" government funding.

Environmentalists are unconvinced, though. Past development scandals raise the prospect that problems might arise, Tittel said. "It makes you uneasy," he said.


Contact Chris Mondics

at 609-989-9016 or cmondics@phillynews.com.

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