, Salem, MA

May 19, 2011

My View: DEP cuts bad for business

My View
David Begelfer and George Bachrach

It's not every day the real estate community and the environmental community share common ground. Increasingly, however, we understand a healthy economy and a healthy environment are mutually beneficial.

We also understand the commonwealth, like every other state, faces a fiscal crisis that must be addressed with painful budget cuts and a disciplined focus on economic development. But we must avoid cuts that undermine the very economic growth and job creation essential to our recovery.

The commonwealth's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is more than a protector of the environment. It directly affects economic development. If developers cannot get environmental permits within a reasonable time frame, the resulting delays could kill a project — especially during this fragile economic recovery. Without timely and predictable permitting, companies looking to relocate or expand in Massachusetts may look elsewhere, taking jobs and tax revenue with them.

DEP also reviews and approves Chapter 91 licenses for large, complex projects near public waterways. Many of these projects have a major economic impact and stimulate further development. But they require timely permitting, and staffing for DEP's review function has already been cut by more than 50 percent over the last three years, with more cuts to come in the FY '12 budget.

Such cuts are penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Economic, environmental and public health interests inevitably intersect when it comes to cleaning up hazardous waste sites and contaminated brownfields. If DEP staff cannot expedite these cleanups, we will not redevelop and revitalize depressed urban centers.

The litany of unintended consequences goes on. Without reasonable funding, DEP cannot provide the critical pre-permitting consultation for new businesses interested in locating in Massachusetts. DEP cannot provide compliance assistance to those businesses seeking to do the right thing under environmental regulations.

It cannot assist municipalities with stormwater management, solid waste disposal, hazardous waste protection, wetlands protection, the mitigation of noise and odor nuisances, and the protection of safe drinking water. It will not be able to assist homeowners faced with oil spills or asbestos problems. Quite simply, DEP will be unable to do its job.

DEP's budget has been disproportionately reduced by 40 percent in less than a decade, devastating a staff that has dropped from 1,200 employees in 2002 to about 745 under the proposed FY '12 House budget passed in April. Although all of the other agencies under the Energy & Environmental Affairs secretariat received an average 1 percent cut from the last fiscal budget, DEP's was cut by 10 percent.

As the Senate develops its budget, it must consider the importance of adequately funding DEP. Under the House budget, DEP may be forced to close one or more regional offices and eliminate another 20 percent of its permitting staff, causing delays and stalling economic development: No growth, no jobs, no tax revenue, no environmental protection. We strongly suggest the Senate apply the same percentage cut to DEP used for the other environmental agencies.

Funding for DEP is not merely about the environment. It's about the economy. Tourism is a $14 billion industry. If we cannot protect our beaches and rivers and parks, we will lose the jobs that go with it. The fishing industry is a $5 billion industry. If we cannot protect our oceans and ports, we run the risk of losing these jobs, as well.

And unless Massachusetts is perceived as a national leader in environmental protection, we risk the "green" jobs that many believe will be a key economic engine in the 21st century.

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David Begelfer is CEO of the Commercial Real Estate Development Association. George Bachrach is president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts.