Administration’s Attempt to Promote Privatization Studied By Assembly Committee

Stealth RFP continues to draw fire from lawmakers and environmentalists

The Christie administration’s efforts to promote privatization ran into significant opposition yesterday. The plan is viewed by some as a stealth proposal to privatize land-use permitting functions within the Department of Environmental Protection.

The plan, detailed in a Request for Proposal (RFP) quietly issued by DEP in concert with the Treasury Department earlier this fall, should be pulled, several environmental organizations told the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee. That was a step backed by Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), the committee’s chairman.

McKeon told DEP officials he was concerned the proposal was put out as a RFP without any public discussion or debate, which he argued circumvented past procedures to review efforts to hand over some of the agency’s functions to the private sector.

“Are you not putting the cart put before the horse?’’ McKeon asked Irene Kropp, deputy commissioner who appeared before the panel to explain the agency’s rationale. “In my view, it’s unacceptable.’’

Tough Times

Kropp defended the proposal, repeatedly arguing in these tough budgetary times, the agency could use private consultants to perform some of the permitting work, a step that would allow DEP staff to focus on their primary mission of protecting the environment. “We have staff who do not have the time or resources to do what they need to do,’’ she told lawmakers.

The RFP, she said, was part and parcel of Commissioner Bob Martin’s plans to transform DEP. Kropp noted the agency has been using private consultants to process air permits since 1983. Martin asked the staff to explore whether the effort could be expanded to the land-use program, which has jurisdiction over many permitting programs but only 70 people in it.

Cognizant of the new administration’s efforts to push privatization, the staff put together the proposal with Treasury and sent it out before either Martin or she had a chance to review it, Kropp said. “It definitely got ahead of Commissioner Martin,’’ she said, adding, however, there was nothing in the RFP that she disagreed with.

Privatized Cleanup

Kropp also compared the effort to the state’s newly established privately licensed cleanup of contaminated sites, which was approved by the legislature and is now being implemented by the agency. Environmentalists rebutted that argument, however, noting the land-use proposal does not license and have the authority to audit the work done by the consultants.

If the land-use permitting employed private consultants, Kropp said, no final decision would be made by them, leaving ultimate decision-making authority to DEP staff.

Under questioning from McKeon, however, Kropp said the agency would not use consultants to process land-use permits this year.

Sharp Criticism

The move to privatize land-use permits drew even sharper criticism from environmentalists, who noted during the gubernatorial campaign last year, candidate Chris Christie said he would not privatize the land-use program, said David Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation, which endorsed the Republican. “Privatizing the land-use program would be a disaster,’’ Pringle said.

Pringle and others also argued the land-use program is much more complex than the air-permitting program because it involves scientific judgments, field work and subjective decisions.

“Taking the responsibility from DEP and giving it to hired consultants that work for polluters would be devastating for the environment,’’ said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This attempt at privatization comes directly after the privatization task force came out with a report to privatize state parks and their management. This is just one more attack in the ongoing assault on New Jersey’s environment.”

Tittel also criticized the agency’s transformation plan, arguing it is touting efforts to streamline permitting programs while the real aim is to weaken environmental protections. Martin is expected to detail the transformation plan to Christie’s cabinet at a meeting in the statehouse today, Kropp said.

The New Jersey Environmental Lobby also is urging the administration to withdraw the RFP. In a letter the group sent to the Governor, it said “outsourcing under the provisions of this RFP runs counter to the DEP’s responsibility to prevent pollution of our state’s natural resources.”