Proposed budget includes three new employees for Environmental Protection Bureau, who would work on compliance and inspection for stormwater and brownfield projects
Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Beach parking fees won’t go up this summer, but the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has proposed raising other user fees, like on camping, to pay for new employees and trash collection at state beaches.
DEM director Janet Coit is asking for 11 new employees and an additional $4 million in the agency’s 2020 fiscal budget.
Money for the new staff won’t come from raising beach parking fees. After pushback, including a bill, the idea was scrapped. Instead, the funding would come from camping and user fees.
More than a decade ago, DEM had 650 employees. Today, the agency has 381 employees and is allowed to hire 14 more. Coit would like to add eight employees to work at state parks and beaches, which attract 9 million visitors annually. Coit noted that the state’s public facilities receive the most visitors in the nation per acre, but Rhode Island ranks 47th in state funding for recreation areas per visitor.
“They are a beautiful, incredible variety of places that we can be proud of, but they’re really in poor shape,” Coit said during a May 1 Senate budget hearing.
Park staffing has shrunk by two-thirds and Coit would like to improve the appearance of state-protected areas, campgrounds, beaches, and bike paths, some of which are used year-round. The new jobs include five maintenance workers, two business development staff, and one administrative position.
Coit said the new employees would allow for expanding camping amenities such as bath houses at Fishermen’s Memorial Campground in Narragansett. She also said the proposed staff and agency funding would keep the beaches open later in the summer and allow for more events.
Coit also has requested three new employees for the agency’s Environmental Protection Bureau, who would work on compliance and inspection for stormwater and brownfield projects. The positions would be funded by increasing the state fee on petroleum products from 5 cents to 10 cents a barrel. The fee is assessed through the state Oil Spill Prevention Administration and Response Program, which was created 1996 to fund oil-spill preparedness and cleanup after the North Cape oil spill.
Some of the proposed fiscal 2020 funding would support habitat restoration, emergency preparedness, and water-quality monitoring.
Climate change is a priority for DEM, according to Coit, who leads the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council. She noted that the state is on track to reduce emissions 10 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, but is failing to meet the 45 percent cut by 2045 and the 80 percent reduction by 2050.
While electricity consumption is decreasing, transportation emissions account for the largest source of greenhouse gases in Rhode Island. Coit said Gov. Gina Raimondo is counting on a regional transportation plan, called the Transportation & Climate Initiative, to reduce vehicle, train, and shipping emissions. DEM also will receive $250,000 to pay for a study on a carbon-fee program.
A third of DEM’s approximately $100 million budget comes from federal agencies, while $41 million comes from state revenue and about $16 million is from restricted receipts, or programs that generate fees. If the requests are approved, DEMs fiscal 2020 budget would increase to $102.9 million.
Keeping Misquamicut State Beach in Westerly free of trash has been a controversial issue. In recent years, incoming beachgoers were handed plastics bag to comply with DEM’s carry-in, carry-out waste policy. Rather than provide trash bins, the policy makes visitors responsible for disposing of their waste. It’s a money-saver for DEM and widely perceived as an effective policy for reducing litter and removing bins that overflow and attract pests.
The free biodegradable bags, however, were seen as a potential waste hazard themselves and many beachgoers didn’t like having to hump out their trash.
Coit said DEM is committed to the carry-in, carry-out policy and wants $122,000 for a pilot waste-and-recycling collection program at Misquamicut.
Coit said she hopes that “people respect these places and we’d like people to reduce the amount of waste but also to take out what they brought it.”
After meetings with Westerly officials, DEM proposed a pilot program that will end the practice of handing out bags. Instead, Dumpsters will be placed at every other beach egress. The town will provide two solar-powered waste receptacles at the beach pavilion, which DEM will empty. Water-filling stations will be added to encourage the use of reusable bottles. The results will be studied by DEM to determine if the program is keeping the beach clean.
Bags will be handed out at the five other state beaches.
Camping fees are proposed to increase from $35 to $50 per day for state residents and $35 to $75 for out-of-state residents. See the proposed camping fee chart here and other proposed park fees here.
Coit said the camping fees are so low that some visitors book campsites for a whole week just so they can reserve a weekend, a practice that precludes local residents from using the facilities on weekdays.
The campground fee increases have received criticism and are under review. Any fees changes are expected to be announced the week of May 5.
Coit noted that when staffing was more robust, DEM had park police and environmental police services, but today has fewer staff at the combined Division of Law Enforcement, which polices marine areas, parks, fisheries, and wildlife.
“We’re definitely stretched extremely thin in terms of having the staffing available at these facilities,” she said.