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Environmental groups press for more staffing at state agencies

Massachusetts environmental groups are calling on Governor Charlie Baker to hire more workers for two state agencies, after departures under a pension-boosting early retirement incentive program, they said, left both “suffering from substantial loss of institutional knowledge and expertise.”

The Monday letter, signed by 40 organizations, pressed for Baker to bulk up staffing at the Department of Environmental Protection, which works to ensure clean air and water, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which oversees places such as state parks and pools.

Proposed by Baker, a Republican, and approved by the Legislature, controlled by Democrats, the early retirement program was meant to trim the state payroll and help Massachusetts bridge a projected budget gap.

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To lock in the savings, rehires for newly vacant positions are capped at 20 percent of payroll savings, but Baker’s budget chief, Kristen Lepore, has flexibility to fill more positions at some agencies and fewer at others.

“We cannot do more with less. We urge you to re-staff DCR and DEP beyond the planned 20% replacement rate to ensure there is sufficient staffing to carry out the agencies’ mandates,” the groups’ letter says.

About 100 employees from each agency took the early retirement deal and left state government service at the end of last month, according to numbers from the state comptroller.

On a percentage scale, the departures are not insignificant. As of January, DCR had 967 active employees and DEP had 774, according to figures provided by the Baker administration.

The environmental groups’ letter says that before the early retirement program, both agencies had seen significant staffing reductions since 2008.

“This is a long-term concern, but also a short-term concern. We have seen an understaffing for a long time, but, of course, some key people are leaving” with the early retirement “and that causes major problems,” said Renata von Tscharner, president of the Charles River Conservancy, a nonprofit aimed at making Boston-area parklands along the river more accessible.

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A signatory to the letter, von Tscharner said an example was the departure of the chief of planning at DCR, Joe Orfant. Combined with other staffers hitting the exits on June 30 will create a ripple effect, she said, that “just means there are going to be such big holes in the planning process.”

Emily Norton, director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club, said the staffing reductions were worrisome, particularly coupled with the governor’s push to streamline state regulations, which has troubled the Sierra Club and other environmental advocates.

George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts and the letter’s lead signatory said more people are needed to make sure environmental laws are enforced and parks and pools are open to and maintained for everyone.

“When it comes to the environment and protecting our water supply and protecting the natural resources, in many circumstances those are boots on the ground positions,” he said.

A spokesman for Baker, Billy Pitman, said the administration is confident it can save money without hurting services.

He pointed to the Baker administration’s recent announcement that it was extending hours at 16 DCR facilities, noted that DCR has more lifeguards on staff this summer than in recent years, and underscored a new ombudsman initiative at DEP.

Pitman also added that the state had “restaffed and increased access” at Massasoit State Park , about an hour drive south of Boston.

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Other state agencies — from the Department of Transportation; to the Department of Revenue, which enforces tax law; to the Department of Transitional Assistance, which helps poor people meet basic needs — also saw significant staff departures.

The Baker administration expected the program to draw 4,500 employees, but only about 2,475 took the deal, according to the comptroller.

The law mandates the administration find $172 million in payroll savings after costs in the fiscal year, which began July 1.


Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.