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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Can't do the job without the people and the resources

State’s Two Environmental Agencies Seek to Fill Vacancies, Add to Budgets

By Rob Smith / ecoRI News staff

DEM posts regular job openings
Staff vacancies continue to persist at Rhode Island’s two environmental agencies, reflecting a trend found throughout state government.

The state Department of Environmental Management confirmed to ecoRI News it has 21 open positions across 10 divisions, including five roles within its law enforcement division, four in the Office of Water Resources, three in the Office of Compliance and Inspection, and three in the Office of Air Resources.

DEM spokesperson Evan LaCross said the department issued four conditional officers to environmental officer trainees, depending on available seats in the municipal police academy. The fifth open position in the law enforcement department, an environmental police officer, is expected to be hired in May.

LaCross said the offices of Water Resources and Air Resources, which are responsible for DEM’s air and water permitting programs, had departures stemming from retirements and employees leaving for other opportunities.

“DEM continues to struggle to hire environmental engineers across all divisions,” LaCross said.

While the department, which had a $127.8 million budget last year, continues to need more resources and staffing, on the agency’s wish list to lawmakers this year was a much more subdued request.

DEM director Terry Gray told legislators in the Senate Finance Committee that DEM is seeking to transition seasonal positions at state parks — at no additional funding cost — to full-time employees working year-round.

According to testimony from Gray, thanks to climate change, state beaches and parks are seeing increased attendance throughout the year, and the department needed more hands on deck to handle it. The rest of the year, said Gray, the newly minted full-time employees would be working on long-deferred maintenance for state park infrastructure.

“We’re seeing more warm days in April and beautiful beach days now well into October,” Gray said at a committee hearing on Thursday. “We need more help during the shoulder season.”

Last year the General Assembly approved eight new full-time equivalent positions at DEM, but six of the spots did not come with funding. Meanwhile, there’s already some movement to give DEM more resources in the light of recent wildfires. A bill (H7258) submitted by Sen. Megan Cotter, D-Exeter, would allocate an additional 10 jobs to DEM’s division of forestry.

DEM’s aquatic counterpart, the Coastal Resources Management Council, told lawmakers last week there are three staff positions open.

Despite having a domain nearly as large as DEM, CRMC has to make do with significantly less staff, and significantly less resources. While DEM boasts some 400 employees, CRMC currently only employs around 31 full-time employees in its Wakefield office. Its budget is also much smaller, at only $5.9 million this fiscal year, with $2.2 million of that money coming from the federal government.

(Coastal agencies like CRMC in states around the country receive formula funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as part of the federal Coastal Zone Management Program.)

CRMC director Jeff Willis told legislators at the Senate Finance Committee hearing the agency could use more coastal policy staff, more enforcement staff, another engineer and, if he was really making a wish list, a resource economist to help with mitigating the impacts of offshore wind on the state’s commercial fishing industry.

“I’ll take as many as you’re allowed to give me,” Willis said during his agency’s budget hearing.

His agency has been the victim of some growing pains over the past decade. What was once a sleepy agency is now in charge of two different booming industries, aquaculture and offshore wind. Last year alone CRMC reviewed four different applications for offshore wind development in the federal lease area adjacent to Rhode Island waters.

According to Willis, the agency’s wind team consists of him and two other staff members, and their ideal workload should be one offshore wind application per year.

One key position has been filled since last year’s budget season. Gov. Dan McKee appointed, and the Senate approved, the agency’s first professional hearing officer in recent memory. The full-time position, required per state law to be filled by an attorney who has been practicing for five years or more, adjudicates contested cases before CRMC’s governing body, as well as weighing in on appeals of administrative fines levied by the agency.

Some lawmakers have introduced legislation to endow CRMC with more money, including a bill, H8003, that would allocate $10 million, nearly four times what the agency receives from the state for a budget, to be used for “remedies, strategies and projects exclusive for Rhode Island’s beach nourishment, restoration and recovery.”