AUG. 22, 2014 -- The only fear might have been fear itself.
Radical changes and outcomes expected when Catherine Templeton took over two years ago as director of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control Direct haven’t come as expected, observers and even critics say.
And while there are some still complaints about overworked staff, bloodletting among the staff appears to have started to staunch itself.
For years, DHEC has been cast as toothless lion -- underpaid, overworked, understaffed. Political and economic forces have regularly robbed the department of its best and its brightest with officials often taking jobs at companies they had been paid state dollars to regulate.
But these days, the agency -- smaller and more streamlined -- is pressing forward.
In 2004, there were close to 5,500 total DHEC employees of every stripe and responsibility. That number included positions paid for with federal pass-through dollars. Roughly 1,700 of that total were funded by state General Fund budget dollars, according to state budget documents. That year, the state committed roughly $105 million toward the agency’s total budget that year.
In the current fiscal year, the total staffing has dropped to about 3,600 employees, with 1,150 of those coming from state dollars. This year, the state this year put $100 million toward DHEC’s budget.
Those numbers represent a nearly one-third reduction in state and federal-paid positions, and a small reduction in state-dollar support. By comparison, the state’s gross domestic product in 2004 was $136 billion, and by 2013, the most recent numbers available, it had grown to $184 billion -- a 35 percent increase.
So, in the time the state’s GDP increased by $50 billion, the legislature had reduced DHEC funding by $5 million.
Stopping the bleeding
Templeton, who came into office on a wave of criticism in March 2012, has bright numbers to report, despite dwindling financial support from the state legislature.
Templeton did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story, deferring to agency spokesman Mark Plowden.
Under Templeton, the agency total employment drop has slowed to close to 1.5 percent, or about 43 jobs, according to Plowden. Translated, that means the slashing and burning really took place in past years, particularly during the Great Recession.
In the environmental quality control department, the office that processes important environmental permits, there were 1,132 full-time slots when Templeton took over, according to numbers provided by Plowden. That number has been reduced to 1,066; of those only 942 have been filled -- a 17 percent reduction from what was funded two years ago.
So with less permitting officials on the job, work has slowed, right? Wrong.
One of the streamlining efforts Templeton had implemented was the creation of “Permit Central,” an online web portal where applicants can file and learn how to speed up the process.
According to Plowden, since implementation, “most” permitting times are running 40 percent faster.
“More importantly, legal appeals to those permits have not increased, meaning those permits have integrity,” pointed out Plowden, who added that it all had been accomplished with no additional budget request.
“Increased efficiency while maintaining quality -- that's what should be expected across all of state government.”
Officials’ errors -- not staffing numbers -- caused DHEC’s biggest snafu under Templeton, a botched tuberculosis outbreak response in Greenwood County, according to the agency and observers.
Not so fast or rosy
Meanwhile, insiders warn of an underfunded and under-experienced future for DHEC.
One current DHEC professional, speaking on anonymity, said there are bigger “vision” and “command structure” issues plaguing the agency. For this official, who has several decades of private sector environmental experience prior to working at the agency, it wasn’t so much the number of those who left after Templeton ascended, but what they took with them.
The official argued that senior engineers and scientists “read the writing on the wall” and left. Into their void stepped lawyers and “bean-counters” more loyal to politics than the complicated environmental issues they were charged with safeguarding, and didn’t have the institutional knowledge to carry out the agency’s science-heavy mission.
Few complaints here
Permitting presents a delicate balance. Go too fast with too few officials and the state’s conservation groups will protest safeguards are being ignored. Go too slow, and manufacturing, industry and developers will complain the state’s slog out of the Great Recession is being slowed.
Apparently, a balance has been struck, as representatives from both sides struggled to point fingers at DHEC.
On the industry side, S.C. Chamber of Commerce president and executive director Otis Rawl said none of his members have come to him and complained about the current pace of permitting.
“The biggest thing I’m hearing is about the need to resolve the ‘certificate of need’ issue,” said Rawl, referring to a change in state law two years ago that has made it difficult for many health care facilities to receive DHEC permitting crucial to their business.
That problem, according to Rawl, isn’t even DHEC’s problem, but one that should be laid at the feet of the legislature, which was unable to provide a solution in this year’s legislative session.
On the green side, representatives from the S.C. Coastal Conservation League said the number and pace of permits being issued wasn’t on its radar.
Brad Wyche, founder and executive director of green watchdog Upstate Forever, as well as the former chairman of the DHEC board from 1999 to2003, said the agency’s biggest problem continues to be a “lack of resources.”
Wyche said DHEC staffers under his watch would routinely be unfairly criticized for the promptness in which they issued permits and the like.
“But, they have got to have the resources in place to do the job they were legally assigned to do: if the state passes a law and have regulations in place, it has to provide the resources to implement and enforce the law,” said Wyche.
Providing permitting pace statistics may actually serve up a red herring, according to Alan Hancock, a Conservation Voters of South Carolina staffer who worked at DHEC until November of last year.
Hancock praised the work Templeton’s administration has done streamlining some of the permitting processes, calling some of what was removed “exercises in paperwork.”
Local government takes some of the work
State Rep. Nelson Hardwick (R-Surfside Beach), chair of the House Ag Committee and former DHEC district EQC director, said some of DHEC’s regulator workload has been reduced at DHEC by localities taking on more and more of regulatory duties.
In his home county of Horry, where he is part of a two-person engineering firm specializing in storm-water drainage, Hardwick said that if a builder wants to erect an 11-house subdivision, he would go to local authorities rather than the state these days.
Like Wyche, Hancock defended the DHEC permitting staffers, saying their jobs would be much easier if Gov. Nikki Haley hadn’t taken such a public “pro-business” position regarding the agency’s mission in the past.
Bill Davis is senior edior of Statehouse Report. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
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