ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Budget and staffing cuts were hurting the ability of the Department of Environmental Conservation to do its job well, fired Commissioner Pete Grannis and his successor told an Assembly hearing Thursday.

Gov. David Paterson fired Grannis last month after his memo warning of the dire consequences of cutbacks was leaked to the media. Acting Commissioner Peter Iwanowicz said at Thursday’s hearing that he agreed with the assertions made in Grannis’ memo, but that budget cuts reflect the state’s economic condition.

In the memo, published by the Albany Times Union, Grannis wrote, “DEC is in the weakest position that it has been since it was created 40 years ago.”

The agency stands to lose 140 jobs as part of Paterson’s plan to lay off about 900 state workers by year’s end.

Among those getting layoff notices are 48 of the 55 full-time year-round employees at the state-run Belleayre Ski Center in the Catskills.

Assemblyman Kevin Cahill of Kingston said the Belleayre job cuts would have a negative impact on a community where the ski center is a big economic driver.

“One of the great successes is that Belleayre is turning into a year-round resort,” Cahill said. “This will have a tremendous impact on that, and on the ability to have a successful ski season.”

Iwanowicz said the employees would be re-hired as part-time seasonal workers, giving the ski center the same staffing level as last year during the winter season. Stuart Gruskin, executive deputy DEC commissioner, said there would be further discussion of future staffing levels at the resort.

Grannis told reporters before the hearing that the environmental impact review of natural gas development in the Marcellus Shale region in southern New York will slow down as a result of budget and staff cuts. Permitting of new gas wells in the region has been on hold since 2008, pending the completion of the review.

“We can’t do as much work with a lot fewer people,” Grannis said. “The work will continue but it will take longer to complete that task.”

John Holko, a petroleum engineer representing the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, testified that the DEC needs more staff, not less, to adequately administer natural gas and oil well permitting and enforcement.

“IOGA of NY believes the state could, and should, generate enough in permit fee revenue to immediately retain existing field inspectors and employ dozens of new inspectors if permitting and drilling is expedited and allowed in the Marcellus Shale formation,” Holko said.

Grannis said the agency had lost 800 staff positions under the administration of former Republican Gov. George Pataki when Gov. Eliot Spitzer appointed Grannis DEC chief in 2007. “We started to rebuild the agency, then were hit with this incredible problem with the economy,” he said.

“The risk is backsliding on the gains we’ve made in the last decade, on clean water, clean air, cleaning up land, and working out a much more collegial relationship with the regulated community we deal with,” Grannis said.

Brian Houseal of the Adirondack Council said budget cuts have led to the closure of 10 air quality monitoring stations that collect data on emissions that cause acid rain. He also noted that the agency has virtually stopped work toward acquisition of key forest lands being held by the Nature Conservancy, including 60,000 acres of Finch Pruyn paper company land and the 16,000-acre Follensby Pond tract.

Iwanowicz said budget and staffing decisions had to take into account the state’s overall financial condition. He noted that New York faces at least a $315 million shortfall during the current fiscal year and a projected $9.2 billion deficit for the fiscal year that begins April 1.

“The reality is that New York simply will not be able to continue delivering the same level of services,” Iwanowicz said.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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