Almost nine months after a state audit showed the Department of Natural Resources had repeatedly failed to send violation notices to wastewater facilities and concentrated animal feeding operations, the head of the agency updated lawmakers on efforts to address the findings.
The audit released last June found DNR staff issued notices to polluters in just 33 of 558 cases between 2005 and 2015. Based on the recommendations made in the audit, DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp on Tuesday told lawmakers that they have a plan in place to make regular checks of wastewater facilities, add staff to review CAFOs, and are working to reduce a backlog in wastewater permits to under 10 percent by December of next year. “Yes there have been problems, yes there are challenges…this administration is fixing it,” Stepp said.
While Republicans on the panel offered praised to Stepp for how the DNR has worked to deal with the audit findings, several Democrats raised concerns about the impact agency policies are having on operations. Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) said she’s seen a “morale” problem at the agency, while while Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) questioned whether the DNR was doing enough to attract new staff.
Stepp put most of the blame for staffing issues on a state hiring freeze that was in place at the time. She said that had winnowed staff in several departments down “not just to the bone, but to the sinew.” However, she said the Legislature and governor have helped turn that around by giving her the green light to fill critical positions.
Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay), who co-chairs the Legislature’s audit committee, said he wants the DNR to keep lawmakers informed about their progress. He asked the agency to come back to the committee in three months for an update.