Environmental funds shrink, but duties grow

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LANSING — Abandoned industrial sites that spew toxic chemicals, poorly regulated dams that threaten people and wildlife, and the unregulated filling of wetlands are part of the cost of waning state revenues.

A three-legged stool of federal funds, state money and user fees has traditionally funded the roughly $368 million annual budget of the Department of Environmental Quality. The leg representing the state's general revenue has been sawn down since its peak in 2002, according to Robert McCann, DEQ press secretary. That year, the state treasury contributed 28 percent of DEQ funding, compared to 13 percent for 2009.

The agency now is also operating at its lowest personnel levels since its inception in 1996.

Meanwhile, the agency's responsibilities have grown, said Bill Rustem, president of Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based think tank. Rustem managed the state's bottle bill program as former Republican Gov. William Milliken's chief environmental advisor in 1976.

Those expanded duties include regulating large-scale water withdrawals from the Great Lakes, searching ship's ballast tanks for invasive species and enforcing increased federal air regulations.

“There's been good progress on environmental issues, but no new resources to meet the new needs,” Rustem said.

Restricted funds from increased fees on services such as wetlands permits have covered some of the gap. For 2009, they represent more than 49 percent of the department’s total budget, up from less than 39 percent in 2002, according to Jim Kasprzak, DEQ financial and business services director.

But state law limits how DEQ spends that money. For example, most of it can't be used to offset the shrunken contaminated-site cleanup budget.

Raising user fees also creates a negative public perception of the agency, McCann said.

“We don't want to do it. But if the state isn't going to fund us through the general fund, we've got to make it up through other means,” he said.

Rustem said that shift to higher fees has many ramifications for the environment and DEQ regulators.

"We're at a point where certain things in law are simply not being done right now by the DEQ,” he said. “That's not good for the environment and it's not good for business.”

Kasprzak said the department is understaffed with 1,330 employees, down from 1,445 in 2007. Most of the job losses stemmed from retirements and resignations. “We are not forcing out people, but at the same time we are not filling in the vacant positions,” he said.

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