Legislators skeptical of department shuffle.

At a hearing before the General Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee Feb. 18 officials from the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control defended a budget plan that calls for a wholesale restructuring of the agency.

Collin O’Mara, DNREC secretary, said consolidating his department from six divisions to three is necessary to manage a 10% staffing reduction sustained over the last two years.

Like other state agencies, DNREC has engaged in an aggressive attrition campaign to clear vacant positions off its budget and eliminate jobs vacated by retirees.

O’Mara also said the reorganization plan positions the agency for the future, since 40% of its employees will be eligible for retirement in the next five years.

The restructuring plan would divide DNREC into two primary areas of responsibility; a Natural Resources division responsible for parks and recreation, fish and wildlife and watershed management; and an Environmental Protection arm encompassing the water and air quality sections, waste management and a community service office, charged with coordinating permitting processes.

Those two divisions would answer to the secretary’s office, which also would be directly responsible for energy and climate policy, land use and coastal programs.

The plan calls for no layoffs, nor does it create new managerial positions at the tops of the new divisions.

O’Mara said DNREC’s current structure has produced redundancies in everything from accounting to equipment purchasing.

“There seems to be a lot of administrative overlap,” he said. “It’s draining waste away from the programmatic functions of the agency.”

The new structure will foster more collaboration among divisions, O’Mara said, and encourage better planning and more efficient use of field personnel and equipment.

When asked if his employees are on board with the proposed structure, the secretary said most are.

“There are a lot of people who are excited about change,” O’Mara said. “There are some who are concerned.”

Despite O’Mara assurances, committee members remained skeptical of the plan.

Committee chairwoman Sen. Nancy Cook, D-Kenton, criticized the secretary’s assertion that DNREC can’t run efficiently in its current form.

“I think it would be sad if within your own organization you don’t have collaboration,” she said.

Sen. David B. McBride, D-Hawk’s Nest, said he wants to make sure the changes won’t effect DNREC’s ability to handle all the various responsibilities under its purview, many of which are close to legislators’ hearts.

“I want to be comfortable that whatever you’re up to, I’m going to get that competency,” he said.
O’Mara responded by saying the changes will improve his agency’s ability to deliver services.

“We need to figure out a way to get more money in the field and less money in the back office,” he said. 

Committee vice chairman Rep. Dennis P. Williams, D-Wilmington North, a former police officer, remained unconvinced.

“I’m trained in body language and this doesn’t look good to me,” he said to O’Mara, who fiddled nervously with his microphone during his remarks. “I’d like to sit down and talk about this.”

A few of the proposed DNREC budget cuts:
Reduce deer management program: $61,500
Eliminate beaver control: $25,000
Reduce mosquito control spraying: $40,300
Eliminate funding for phragmites: $40,800
Eliminate casual/season funding for the Center for Inland Bays: $30,000

Email Doug Denison at doug.denison@doverpost.com.