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Utah Legislature: Review of air quality division is sought

SALT LAKE CITY — Faced with bleeding budgets that have at times threatened the effectiveness of state agencies, lawmakers are looking at ways to "streamline" government services, even as public demands continue to climb.

On the first rung of the ladder is the Utah Division of Air Quality, which for years has been caught in the clutches of the federal government as it seeks to curb pollution levels and meet new regulatory standards for clean air.

"Clearly, there have been a lot of issues in terms of air quality, our air quality along the Wasatch Front," said Amanda Smith, executive director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, within which the division falls. "This has been a concern not only to the industry, but to the public."

Smith said a 23 percent budget cut to the agency last year, coupled with looming cuts this year, has been an impediment to expediting the permitting process.

"Permit times have increased," she said. "We're trying to reduce costs and provide better services, but that takes some time, takes some energy because of the fiscal stress we are under."

To that end, a legislative committee said Wednesday it wants Smith's staff to do a complete review of the air quality division.

The review will look at division functions, staffing, programs, fees and funding sources, said Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, a co-chairman of the subcommittee that's tasked to sort through the agency's finances.

The department must report the results to lawmakers on the Environmental Quality subcommittee before the beginning of next year's legislative session.

The Department of Environmental Quality also must make recommendations to improve service to stakeholders and businesses, as well as give suggestions on how to better respond to federal government mandates, said Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, also a subcommittee co-chairman.

"Recognizing the issues that are happening with air quality, primacy, the needs to get permits out for a number of our businesses so they can continue operation and business, one of the things the committee voted on was to work with the committee, the stakeholders, the businesses and with air quality (division) to do a complete review and introspection, an inspection of what they're doing," Harper said.

The subcommittee that Van Tassell and Harper chair also examines funding for the Utah Department of Transportation, which Van Tassell described as being innovative because of the way it installs bridges using "bridge farms" and its flexibility to move staff to different tasks as necessary. Also, UDOT relies heavily on contractors to design and build roads and bridges.

"We'll look at the possibilities of maybe outsourcing and doing some contracting so we can meet those needs and we can maintain what we need to, yet on bigger projects have some availability (in Air Quality division staff) there," Van Tassell said.

Smith said she is not opposed to farming out certain types of expertise-driven work to contractors and using more temporary part-time help to achieve greater financial flexibility within the division.

"Our workload ebbs and flows," she said. "There may be a way to be more flexible and meet demands better that would benefit the environment, getting people with a particular expertise or not having to commit to long-term employment."

Van Tassell said the intent is to "redo" the entire agency.

"Rather than look at the whole vine, we're starting on a couple sections, and then we'll move forward. We'll review the others in the years to come."