Government

Study Commission: CRMC’s Budget is Insufficient

Concerns about rampant growth crowding the shores of the Ocean State, and near approval of industrial coastal projects such as an oil refinery in Tiverton, led to the founding of the Coastal Resources Management Council in 1971. (istock)

PROVIDENCE — State officials should be investing more in coastal protection and management, according to the legislature’s study commission on reorganizing the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).

Chief of staff Antonio Afonso presented Gov. Dan McKee’s proposed budget to the commission last week. Under the plan, CRMC would receive an additional $367,742 from the general fund. The money would be used to hire a full-time position at $124,769, and a part-time hearing officer at $15,000, with the remaining $206,481 slated for cost-of-living adjustments for existing staff.

“My issue is the agency has a $5 million budget,” commission chair Rep. Deb Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, said. “$2.5 million from the state, $2.5 million from the feds and now our state is getting $1.1 billion in federal dollars and there has not been one dollar appropriated or allocated for CRMC.”

The governor’s budget includes a coastal-analyst position that would work on offshore wind permitting and help the agency manage its shoreline public rights of way. CRMC expects to have five offshore wind facilities in different stages of development over the next two years.

 “The proper policy goal, it seems to us, is a balanced approach which carefully takes into account all legitimate claims to natural resources,” Afonso said.

The part-time hearing officer position is required under state law. The agency in the past has relied on pro bono lawyers to work as hearing officers during controversial applications or to handle enforcement issues. Under the governor’s plan, the hearing officer would work part-time while retaining the ability to practice law in a private practice, something disallowed for similar positions at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

The current CRMC workload is not enough to support a hearing officer full time, according to Afonso. While commission members welcomed a shift away from volunteer lawyers, Rep. Laura Carson, D-Newport, called the position “woefully insufficient.”

The commission isn’t the only body scrutinizing the agency’s hearing officers; the Senate Finance Committee raised ethical concerns about future and past conflicts of interest with the position.

“It might be hard to insulate someone who is a hearing officer from representing clients who have business in front of the CRMC in the future or have had business in front of the CRMC in the past,” Sen. Sam Zurier, D-Providence, said.

CRMC executive director Jeffrey Willis told the senators that conflicts had not been an issue in the past, but said he was receptive to using a pool of lawyers as hearing officers instead of just one.

“That’s a structure we could employ,” he told finance committee members. “We could have a maximum fund of availability.”

CRMC has been mired in controversy over the past few years. While staff are always highly praised, critics of the agency take aim at its top-down council structure, where political appointees can vote freely on any application regardless of staff recommendations. In late 2020 the council agreed to a surprise mediated settlement with Champlin’s Realty Associates Inc., which sought to expand the marina’s footprint 170 feet into Block Island’s Great Salt Pond.

The agency is responsible for 420 miles of the state’s coastline and retains permitting power for any development from 200 feet within the shoreline to 3 miles out to sea. Out of 30 full-time staff, only three are currently devoted to enforcement and compliance, and CRMC as a whole has been operating on level-funded budgets for decades.

The understaffed nature of the agency has come under repeated scrutiny from the study commission during the past seven months.

“How can a group that has had a budget of over 20 people for well over 10 years not be expanded given the importance of their efforts?” Carson asked.

The House study commission is expected to issue its final recommendations on overhauling the CRMC by the end of March.

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  1. How exactly does hiring one full time, one part time and cost of living increases for all alleviate the overall staffing shortage? The CRMC needs more full-time specialists educated in marine ecology and biology and fewer political appointments.

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