Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposed budget devotes about 1.1 percent of all state spending to the state’s two major environmental agencies: the Department of Environmental Management and the Coastal Resources Management Council. The DEM got a small bump from the governor’s last budget, while the CRMC held steady. We break down the numbers.
For the past decade, staffing at the Department of Environmental Management and the Coastal Resources Management Council has declined, drawing criticism that the agencies don’t have enough resources to do their jobs.
In the budget unveiled last week, Gov. Gina Raimondo added two new positions at the DEM. Save the Bay Executive Director Jonathan Stone applauds the move.
“That has not happened in over 10 years,” said Stone. “And I think it’s a difficult budget environment. Every governor faces a challenging budget process. We give Gov. Raimondo huge credit for taking the first step. We’re not as far as we need to go, but it’s a great first step.”
That step, under the governor’s proposal, is to add a new inspector and a new lawyer at the DEM. Director Janet Coit is thrilled.
“That means that they will be actively involved in compliance and enforcement," explained Coit, "both doing inspections in the field to see if there is violations of environmental protection laws and dealing with the follow-up from any violations in the way of litigation, follow-through, settlement agreements, fines. So it’s terrific.”
Coit expects the new inspector would focus on water quality issues, while the lawyer would work on an array of violation cases waiting to be resolved.
“That’s a grant program operated by DEM that provides seed money to food-related businesses,” said Coit. “It’s typically gone to farmers, fishermen or organizations that promote local agriculture.”
The permanent stream of money for this program would come from annual payments that developer Deepwater Wind pays the state to lease underwater land for its Block Island Wind Farm.
“That’s a project that affects fishermen,” said Coit,” so it [the money] could go back and support fishermen, marketing of local seafood and also agriculture.”
Coit said the $150,000 annual lease payments would be redirected to the LASA program if the General Assembly approves the governor’s recommendations.
The Coastal Resources Management Council would be level-funded under the governor’s proposal. Outside of the budgets for CRMC and DEM, the governor included $100,000 to establish a coastal resiliency center at the University of Rhode Island.
The center would provide coastal cities and towns with technical support to prepare for climate change. Scientists project more frequent, intense storms that bring strong winds and surging tides.
“They’ll become more pressing with sea level rising and with this pattern of weather that we’ve been having where we’ll have very intense storms that drop a lot of rain in a short time,” said Coit. “So this is a first step in coordination with URI to try to both align the resources they have and attract some new resources.”
The URI coastal resiliency center would work closely with the CRMC and partner up with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Elsewhere in the budget, the governor proposed a $35 million bond for stormwater upgrades, brownfield remediation and energy efficiency.
The bond also gives a booth to bike path development. The money would be used “to complete segments of some of the bike paths that are already constructed but not complete, like the Blackstone River Bikeway that DEM manages and the South County Bike Path that has stopped short of the beach it’s supposed to arrive at,” said Coit.
State Energy Commissioner Marion Gold adds that the governor included money to support renewable energy programs.
“It’s great news for Rhode Island because expansion of local renewable energy benefits both the environment and creates good local jobs,” said Gold, “and [it] keeps more of our energy dollars in the local economy, which is a win, win, win.”
Gold said the governor proposed a five-year extension through 2022 for the state’s Renewable Energy Fund. The REF gives homeowners and businesses grants and loans that offset up to 25 percent of the cost of installing renewable energy systems, such as solar panels and wind turbines.
“As we like to say, the Renewable Energy Fund makes doing the right thing easier to do,” said Gold. “It’s also really important because it sends a signal to businesses that Rhode Island is a good place to invest their dollars.”
Adding renewable energy systems to a home or business are expensive investments. They can increase property values and taxes, said Gold.
“Most municipalities haven’t written property tax rules with renewables in mind and the tax rates can really determine the financial viability of a project,” said Gold.
The tax rules are not consistent across the state and negotiating those taxes can sometimes take longer than the entire process. Gold said the governor is proposing to exempt renewable energy systems from property taxes.
“So by proposing to exempt renewables from taxation, we think more homeowners and businesses will be able to make the investment,” said Gold.
Communities will have the option to opt out of the exemption and set local rules governing how they will tax renewables, “and what we’re hoping for is more consistency across the state,” said Gold.
Some energy and environmental advocates are cheering these small investments. And they hope the governor is signaling the first step toward rebuilding the state’s environmental enforcement agencies. DEM officials say they also hope to get more resources in the future.
Correction: The governor included $100,000 for the coastal resiliency center at the University of Rhode Island, not $100 million.
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