R.I. Environmental Agencies’ Staffing, Budgets Don’t Meet Their Needs
June 30, 2023
PROVIDENCE — Despite modest increases in staffing and funding in recent years, Rhode Island’s environmental agencies are still a far cry from where they need to be.
The fiscal 2024 state budget approved by lawmakers in June contained money for eight new staff hires at the Department of Environmental Management, and no new funding for staff at the Coastal Resources Management Council, despite both agencies having their hands full in their permitting and compliance divisions.
It’s really a tale of two state agencies. As of July 1, DEM’s budget will rise to $127 million, with a total staff cap of 425 full-time equivalents (FTEs). CRMC, with a jurisdiction area that includes some 400 miles of the coastline, all of the waters of Narragansett Bay, and a big chunk of coastal ocean waters, received mostly level funding with a maximum FTE cap of 32.
“To the credit of the governor and the General Assembly, DEM is getting more storing capacity after being drained of it for more than a decade,” said Topher Hamblett, interim executive director of Save The Bay. “We’re not saying it needs to be 600 people like it used to, but until the last couple of years, DEM was down to 380ish staff, and right now they’re back above 400.”
DEM still hasn’t quite recovered from the cuts inflicted on it starting in the mid-1990s. In 1994, the environmental agency had 630 full-time staff and annual budget of $69 million, or $141 million adjusted for inflation, still far more than what the department is receiving this year.
But it’s not all bad news for the environment. Lawmakers this year also chose to fund the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4), the state’s lead agency on climate change response and resilience. The roughly $1.5 million budget, derived from Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative proceeds, will be the first money allocated to the state’s designated agency to tackle the climate crisis.
Meanwhile, over the past 20 years, CRMC has seen modest increases in its budget, but almost no increases in staff. Unlike most agencies, which receive the vast majority of their operating budgets from the state’s general revenues, CRMC receives nearly half of its budget from the federal government as part of the National Coastal Zone Management Program.
In 2001, the state allocated $1.15 million in general revenues, around $1.9 million in today’s dollars, to CRMC. The agency received another $1.15 million in contributions from the federal government.
Today it’s a little higher. The state budget that begins July 1 has $3.3 million allocated to CRMC from state revenues and another $2.25 million from the federal government. But staffing is where CRMC feels the pinch. In 2001 the agency had 28 full-time staff; today it has 32.
“That’s for an agency charged with offshore wind, shoreline access, aquaculture planning, and more broadly, climate change with rapidly eroding coasts, and the challenge of trying to develop or redevelop in areas that are at risk,” Hamblett said. “That’s a lot for the agency to deal with.”
The leveled staffing comes at a time when the agency is up to its eyeballs in offshore wind applications, with at least six projects proposed in CRMC’s jurisdictional waters or adjacent to them. That does not include Revolution Wind, which wrapped up the agency approval process earlier this year.
Lawmakers routinely acknowledge the need for more resources for the bootstrapped coastal agency. The Legislature formed a study commission in 2021 to examine reforming the agency, noting CRMC only had three enforcement officers to cover its massive jurisdictional area.
The agency currently only has two enforcement officers listed on its website after longtime enforcement chief Laura Miguel was named CRMC’s new deputy director. Last year saw further roadblocks as well, with the Department of Administration putting a freeze on several open positions within the agency, including the deputy director role, from mid-August to October.
The CRMC study commission’s final recommendations said little about staffing levels or budgets, but did recommend a full-time attorney for staff and a full-time hearing officer to hear contested cases. Both positions were funded in last year’s budget, but the governor did not fill the positions for most of the fiscal year. He appointed attorney Mark Krieger as a part-time hearing officer, who was confirmed on the last day of the Senate session in June with no committee vetting beforehand.
A key part of agency reform, Hamblett said, is strengthening staff capabilities and giving CRMC the budget it needs to execute its mission.
“Going forward, that’s what we’d like to see,” he said. “Structural reform but also an agency that’s provided the resources that it needs to be a top-notch coastal agency. Just 32 people year after year is completely inadequate.”