Not collecting fines for violations of land-use regulations. Issuing permits without checking whether the applicants have paid their fees. Taking no further action when polluters fail to pay penalties assessed by the agency.
Those were among the recurring problems that the State Auditor in the Office of Legislative Services uncovered in the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Land Use Management and other programs.
The audit heightened criticism from Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, who had already taken the agency to task after reviewing its enforcement records earlier this month. The records show that even as the DEP stepped up inspections for potential violations of environmental laws, the number of enforcement actions fell by more than half since 2008.
“People who violate our environmental laws and regulations have seen a drop in enforcement actions, and now they realize that even if they are assessed a penalty, they do not have to pay it,’’ said Tittel, one of the most vocal critics of the Christie administration.
DEP officials disputed that view.
“We have a new model at the DEP,’’ Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the agency told NJ Spotlight last week. “The goal is to achieve more compliance to resolve environmental problems quicker. It’s not the number of violations and fines that are an indicator of environmental improvement.’’
The latest audit found no problems with the division’s financial transactions or the handling of federal grants received by the state. Nevertheless, the audit said “improvements can be made to penalty collection and internal controls related to permit-processing meriting management’s attention.’’
For example, the Coastal & Land Use Compliance unit had $1 million in outstanding penalties as of February 28, according to the audit. It recommended that the unit improve its collection procedure by imposing liens on the properties of violators who fail to fulfill their payment obligations. In addition, the unit does not assess additional penalties to those parties that reach a settlement with the agency but fail to comply with it.
In response to the audit, the DEP said it is working with the Department of Treasury and the New Jersey Division of Law to file liens through computer applications on those who fail to pay their fines.
The audit highlighted other problems that need to be addressed by the agency.
Between state fiscal budget years of 2010-2012, the audit found 134 permits issued by the unit, which lacked a paid bill or fee that could be documented. The audit recommended the department verify funds have been received before issuing any permits.
In another instance, the audit said it was unable to verify the deposit of six checks totaling $7,000.
In response, the agency said it has modified its procedures to develop monthly reports to ensure that all checks are received and recorded by the Department of Treasury.
But Tittel said the agency’s record is troublesome — especially given the state’s aggressive efforts to rebuild the Jersey Shore in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
“At a time when rebuilding from Hurricane Sandy, strict enforcement is even more important, especially if you do not need a permit to rebuild,’’ he said. “Without the threat of enforcement and oversight, there will be new mistakes and violations made.’’