Tallahassee — A tough new pollution penalty unveiled last week is motivated by crippling budget shortfalls in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The DEP plan to raise more revenue from sharply increased fines may be hamstrung by the lack of sufficient staff and funds to implement it.
On July 18, 2007, DEP Secretary Michael Sole announced steep hikes in civil pollution fines, saying “I want to change the idea that ‘penalties are a cost of doing business’ by emphasizing the agency’s tough stance against violators.” In some instances, fine levels will be increased by as much as 770 percent.
Days earlier, on July 3, Sole sent a memo to employees warning that revenue “will not be enough to support appropriations for this year…As a result, we are required to do two things: reduce discretionary spending now and submit proposed budget reductions by August 8.” A significant portion of the DEP budget is derived from fines collected in pollution violation cases.
“Secretary Sole and Governor Crist did not suddenly get religion on tough pollution enforcement; instead they found the fiscal cupboard bare and converted to preaching the gospel of big penalties out of necessity,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, noting the vacuous rationale cited by a DEP spokesperson that Sole has “been here for over 15 years and just noticed that there were updates needed.” “For more than a decade DEP told the public its kinder, gentler penalty policy was working. Now, the public is asked to believe that substantially higher penalties are a good idea, even though the agency is unable to implement such a policy after years spent squandering the needed resources.”
Phillips points to a number of factors that will likely preclude DEP plans to reap new fine revenue, including –
- The hiring freeze at DEP will prevent replenishing depleted inspector, investigator and attorney positions needed to document the types of violations that would produce big fines;
- The cancellation of all discretionary training, as directed by the Sole memo, will hinder reassignment of existing staff to enforcement cases; and
- The budgetary hole is so deep that there are no funds to reprogram a big investment in staff positions needed to assess and collect fines.
“Corporate violators are not going to roll over and meekly surrender hefty fines; the state has to engage in tough prosecutions, a task that requires time and money,” added Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney. “It will take a lot for DEP to change its spots from a tabby cat to a leopard.”
The 2007-8 budget assembled by Governor Charlie Crist cuts the DEP budget by more than one-third. In addition, the Ecosystem Management and Restoration Trust Fund, where civil fines are deposited and which helps support DEP operations (including employee salaries), continues a multi-year decline.
Despite the steep cuts and warnings to employees, in a press release issued this March Secretary Sole praised the new budget: “This year’s legislative budget further strengthens the state’s commitment to our environment. It demonstrates the dedication of Governor Crist and Lt. Governor Kottkamp to protecting, preserving and restoring Florida’s land, waterways and quality of life.”
Ironically, Secretary Sole’s penalty initiative consisted of employing a fine structure created back in 2001. “It is pretty late in the day when DEP pledges to actually start enforcing the law only to find it cannot afford to do so,” Phillips concluded. “If the agency had followed its own guidelines and Florida Statutes in the past it would not be in such bad shape today.”