ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Environmental groups are generally pleased with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's $143 billion budget proposal, noting that it increases the fund that supports a number of environmental initiatives, maintains agency staffing levels and sets aside money for much-needed upkeep and infrastructure improvement at state parks.
"After several challenging budgets, the Friends of New York's Environment is pleased that Gov. Cuomo included a $153 million investment for the state's Environmental Protection Fund," a $19 million increase over last year's level, a coalition of groups including Sierra Club, Audubon, The Nature Conservancy and the League of Conservation Voters said in a statement Wednesday.
It's the first increase in the fund in three years. The increase would come from Cuomo's proposal to transfer to the fund $15 million in unclaimed returnable bottle deposits, plus $4 million from improved enforcement of the unclaimed deposit program.
Appropriations from the fund include $12.7 million for solid waste programs, $58.3 million for parks and recreation, and $82 million for open space programs, including $20 million for land protection.
Some environmental groups were dismayed when Cuomo vetoed a bill in December that would have added $10 million to the fund in each of the next six years. In his veto message, Cuomo indicated he had a different plan in his proposed 2013-14 budget.
"We are pleased that he not only lived up to his word, but increased the total amount going to the EPF beyond what the vetoed bill would have provided," John Sheehan of the Adirondack Council said Wednesday.
Other environmentalists were more skeptical. Andrew Postiglione of Environmental Advocates said Wednesday that the budget proposal adds $19 million from unclaimed deposits, while the vetoed bill would have added only $10 million. But the bill would have increased the amount generated in coming years and ultimately would have generated $25-$30 million more than Cuomo's plan over five years, he said.
The state's Department of Environmental Conservation would get $40 million from the New York Works capital program to clean up "brownfield" polluted sites for redevelopment; repair recreational facilities; cap high-risk abandoned oil and gas wells; and update online services for the public.
DEC staffing would remain steady at 2,916 full-time employees.
The overall DEC budget proposed by Cuomo is $897.8 million, a decrease of $187 million from last year. The decrease reflects a change in the pace of the New York Works capital infrastructure program and transfer of salaries for some employees to the state Office of Information Technology Services.
While other groups expressed relief that agency budgets and staffing weren't cut as they have been in recent years, Sheehan said the Adirondack Council is concerned that the number of forest rangers, environmental conservation officers and Adirondack Park Agency staffers remains too low to protect the 9,300-square-mile Adirondack Park.
"Not having any more cut is very good news," said David Van Luven of Environmental Advocates in Albany. "It's stopping the bleeding that's been occurring over the last few years. But it doesn't change the fact that there are regulations that need to be enforced to protect public health and safety, and they need to have adequate staffing to do that."
Cuomo and his predecessors have slashed the state workforce repeatedly to save money since the recession hit, with DEC cuts drawing outcries from environmental groups. In 2010, former Gov. David Paterson fired his environmental commissioner, Pete Grannis, after a memo from Grannis warning of the dire consequences of staff and budget cuts was leaked to the media.
Van Luven said the increase in the Environmental Protection Fund is good news, even though it's about half the $300 million target level recommended by environmental groups.
"It's a high priority for us," Van Luven said Wednesday. "It's a program that puts money into communities for things people care about. It launches recycling programs, creates parks, and helps repair sewer systems. It's money that goes directly into communities and yields real, tangible results."
That is, if the money is allocated to environmental programs and not swept into the budget's General Fund during economic hard times, as it has been repeatedly over the years.
Travis Proulx of Environmental Advocates also praised the governor for his plan to build electric car-charging stations across the state to encourage sales of the less-polluting vehicles. "He's working on a number of really impressive plans to fight climate change," Proulx said.
A major issue not mentioned by Cuomo in his budget message on Tuesday was fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, for natural gas. DEC is trying to finalize new regulations for fracking by a Feb. 27 deadline, and Cuomo has said he won't decide whether to lift a 4 1/2-year-old moratorium on the shale gas extraction technology until health and environmental studies are complete.
"It was wise and responsible of the governor to not include resources to oversee fracking in his budget proposal," with the health and environmental reviews still unfinished, Proulx said.