Environmental Conservation Dept to cut jobs

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(Host) The Douglas administration plans to cut six positions in the Department of Environmental Conservation in next year’s budget. Jeffrey Wennberg, the new Environmental Conservation commissioner, told lawmakers that the department’s budget is not sustainable in the years ahead.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The Department of Environmental Conservation runs a host of permit programs. It oversees landfills, public water supplies, and air quality review. It’s also short of staff and money – a problem that some say contributes to a backlog in the permit reviews.

Although the Douglas administration has made permit reform a top priority, it plans to cut department staff next year. Department Commissioner Jeffrey Wennberg outlined the problem before a Senate committee on Friday:

(Wennberg) “The department budget projects for fiscal year 2004 a net reduction of six fulltime positions in the department over the current staffing levels.”

(Dillon) The department now has about 270 employees. In the current fiscal year, there won’t be any layoffs. But nine positions will be left -vacant. Wennberg says one of his main jobs is to fix the chronic budget problems in the department:

(Wennberg) “Because, quite frankly, the budget, the ’04 budget that’s being presented, is not sustainable. It is a stop-gap, that’s all there is to it. And the department must be put on a revenue and expenditure basis that is sustainable for the foreseeable future.”

(Dillon) The department has transferred people to handle a backlog of over 1,000 expired stormwater permits around the state. But moving those employees will leave nine other positions vacant.

Chittenden Senator Jim Condos questioned how Governor Douglas can make good on his promise to reform the permit process with fewer people to do the job.

(Condos) “It’s interesting that we talk about improving the process yet, I’m not sure how we do that while at the same time cutting funds. And cutting staffing I think compounds that problem as well.”

(Dillon) Commissioner Wennberg, who is a former mayor Rutland, told the committee he’s also trying to re-shape the department so it’s more focused on the customer, including cities and towns. He says he’ll come back to the Legislature next week with a more detailed analysis of the budget issues.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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