ALBANY - Environmental groups say Gov. David Paterson is hobbling the state's ability to protect its natural resources by ordering hundreds of job cuts at the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Paterson has called for cutting 2,000 of the state's 200,000 employees by year's end. Each agency has been given a target for total staffing, and for the DEC, that's 2,926, budget division spokesman Eric Kriss said Wednesday.
DEC spokesman Yancey Roy said the agency has about 3,150 employees after 260 accepted an early retirement incentive on Monday. That leaves 224 more jobs to be cut by layoffs or attrition.
Alison Jenkins of Environmental Advocates said DEC staff has been cut by 22 percent, or about 850 jobs, since 2008, hampering the agency's ability to monitor polluters, inspect sites such as natural gas wells, and enforce environmental regulations.
"These staff cuts must make DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis feel like he's got to clean up New York's toxic chemical spills armed with a toothbrush and a garden hose," Jenkins said. "Under the guise of fiscal responsibility, Governor Paterson is undoing years of progress on environmental protection in New York."
The agency is losing a lot of institutional knowledge with the departure of those who took early retirement, Jenkins said.
The retirees worked an average of 31 years with the 40-year-old agency, Grannis said. They include wildlife pathologist Ward Stone, an outspoken crusader against bird-killing pesticides and other toxins; biologist Peter Nye, who oversaw the comeback of bald eagles to the state; and Al Hicks, who studied the return of moose populations and the mysterious demise of hibernating bats.
The staff cuts come on the heels of a series of budget reductions at the DEC, including a cut of more than 50 percent in the agency's non-personnel budget in the last two fiscal years, said Brian Houseal, executive director of the Adirondack Council.
"This is the latest mark on the wrong side of the Governor's environmental record," Houseal said. "Earlier this year, he ruthlessly cut the Environmental Protection Fund. He threatened a moratorium against open space protection, tried to close DEC campgrounds and state parks. In the Adirondacks, he de-funded the Visitor Interpretive Centers and cut the staff of the Adirondack Park Agency by 13 positions, about 20 percent."
Kriss said the staffing cuts were being made across the board except where staffing levels were critical to ensuring public health and safety.
"All the agencies perform important functions," Kriss said. "They've all had to take some kind of a cut because of the fiscal difficulty the state has been in and the need to balance the budget without a significant increase in revenue."