DCR is an agency without a vision

Budget cuts are deliberate disinvestment in state’s parks

KUDOS TO THE BAKER ADMINISTRATION for stepping in to help the Department of Conservation andRecreation (DCR) focus on its core expertise – parks and parkways stewardship – by taking management of two state piers off DCR’s crowded plate. But changing day-to-day management responsibilities doesn’t solve the long-term problems our park system faces. That system continues to face steep funding shortfalls and limps along from one challenge to the next without the chance to focus on long-range goals. Other than the warning to “stay out of the news and work as efficiently as you can with what budget we give you,” I know of no compelling vision for DCR.

Indeed, the Baker administration and now the House Ways and Means Committee have fastened the agency’s funding corset so tight that DCR’s Stewardship Council, which is obliged to approve the commissioner’s (read governor’s) annual operating budget each year, voted this year to reject the proposed budget outright as being wholly insufficient to meet DCR’s mission and mandate. As noted in a letter to legislative budget leaders, the council said: “It is hard to view the FY18 budget as anything other than a deliberate disinvestment in DCR and its ability to adequately maintain the agency’s assets and programs.”

For example, as a result of the administration’s voluntary retirement program early this fiscal year, DCR lost 17 employees, many with deep institutional knowledge. No backfills will be permitted. These buy-outs worsened DCR’s full-time staffing shortage, coming as they did on the heels of the previous fiscal year’s buy-out program, which eliminated another 90-plus positions. While a small number of backfills were promised at the time, a hiring freeze quickly ended that. In total, DCR has lost 31 percent of its workforce, or 396 positions, over the last nine years.

Beyond the staff cuts, the administration cut the agency’s budget by $6 million, or 7 percent, in December 2016. While the bulk of these reductions eliminated legislative earmarks, seven additional positions were cut. Additional cuts may be needed.

So what does DCR need?

First, we should insist on a clear set of long-range objectives for which DCR should be funded over the next 10 to 20 years. Former governor William Weld pursued a vision of combining DCR’s progenitors (the Department of Environmental Management and the Metropolitan District Commission) to help make the Commonwealth’s park system “second to none.” Former governor Mitt Romney, after establishing a consolidated DCR, set out a vision for “a world class park system.” Neither governor’s initiative transformed the agency, but the push from above encouraged staff to focus on long-term improvement and funding. If Gov. Charlie Baker is hesitant to set a vision for DCR, the Legislature should step in, perhaps employing a blue ribbon commission.

Second, the administration must staff and fund an effort to support ongoing, credible estimates of funding needed to achieve clear and simple operating and maintenance standards across the system. Management systems were built in the early Romney years to undergird such an effort, but they withered away as the staff needed to build and maintain the system was cut. Commendably the staff is in the process of rebuilding its systems for assessing and setting maintenance standards, managing assets and work-order processing, identifying operating and funding gaps, and integrating these with planning and budgeting. This will take time, leadership, commitment and support throughout the government. Then we will know exactly how much money DCR needs in a base budget to maintain and operate its system at an agreed-upon standard of service.

Third, the administration and Legislature need to provide DCR with immediate funding relief. While the Stewardship Council proposed line-item budget increases in its recent letter, a good start would be to restore appropriations taken from DCR since 2015. That is when the administration and Legislature began to reduce appropriations by the amount of revenue the agency collected under the new 80/20 sharing system adopted in 2013. Since 2013, DCR has increased its collection of fee revenue from roughly $14 million to a projected $24 million this fiscal year. Under the 80/20 provisions, DCR could keep and reinvest $6 million of that increase. During the same period, DCR’s operating budget has remained flat even without adjusting for inflation. In other words, as DCR worked hard to generate revenue to invest in the parks, its appropriated budget was cut back by an equal amount. So the funding for park operations should be increased now by $6 million. DCR did its job in increasing revenue from its various fees to cover improvements in its system. The Legislature and administration took it away.

Finally, it is time the rest of us made our voices heard and our perspectives known to the governor and our legislative leaders. Every year, we see citizens across the country vote with their wallets to sustain and protect our peerless public lands. (See www.landvote.org) Nonetheless, we face threats of draconian federal budget cuts, including the outright elimination of the vital Land and Water Conservation Fund and unprecedented proposals to divest or otherwise compromise our invaluable public lands.

If you think we are luckier in Massachusetts, think again. It was reported last year that the National Park Service’s operating funding has declined 8 percent in inflation-adjusted terms from 2005 to 2014. Over the same period, DCR’s decline has been more than double, or 18 percent. Apparently we just don’t care about the condition of our parks in Massachusetts.

Meet the Author

Whitney Hatch

Chairman, Stewardship Council of Department of Conservation and Recreation
We have to stand up and demand the resources and attention of our government to fund and staff our parks agencies at sustainable levels. We have a right to expect safe, continuously-maintained parks. Take pictures of your parks, of the worn and tattered edges. Send them to the Baker administration and to legislative leaders and demand funding for adequate staff and financial resources to better maintain the state’s parks. The Stewardship Council will continue its efforts on behalf of DCR, but we need you. Clearly the governor and Legislature have other priorities than our parks. But you can make them care.

Whitney Hatch is chairman of the DCR Stewardship Council. He also serves on the boards of The Trust for Public Land and the Conservation Law Foundation.