Stepp: Working to bring business mindset into DNR operations
9/7/2011

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

In her eight months at the helm of the Department of Natural Resources, Cathy Stepp says she has worked hard to get the agency’s 2,000-plus employees to be more business- and customer-friendly.

And that, she says, has produced a positive result from the public and DNR workers, whom she says have responded with ideas on how to make the agency more productive.

“I’m hearing from a lot of people who want to create jobs and hunt and fish and recreate,” says Stepp, once a harsh critic of the DNR.

“The outpouring of support from the public has been overwhelming,” adds Stepp, a former homebuilder, Republican state senator and member of the Natural Resources Board.

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Stepp says the announcement on Aug. 18 by Gov. Scott Walker making the DNR the first “enterprise agency” will make it more nimble and give it more autonomy.

Among other goals, the DNR will try to cut costs by 2.5 percent, increase over-the-counter service by 40 percent and reduce permit times for major air and water permits by 5 percent while maintaining environmental rules.

It creates an Office of Business Support and Sustainability, aimed at improving communications with regulated communities. In addition, the DNR will be developing Internet-based tools to streamline and more effectively transmit and track permit applications.

“These are just fundamental business practices that haven’t been done in state agencies before and I’m really excited about the opportunity to get to be the one to be heading the charge on this,” she says.

The move has met with a positive response from business and hunting organizations and a mixed reaction from environmental groups.

Stepp says the enterprise designation is not as “sizzly on the outside as it is on the inside, but it is certainly going to allow us to give much better return to taxpayer and license fee payers on money they invest in our agency.”

On major policy issues, Stepp says she has switched gears from advocate to “chief bureaucrat” who takes her direction from the governor and Legislature.

She says, however, that the DNR worked with legislators earlier this year to provide technical advice to drafters of a bill that would have sped up the process for a Canadian company to develop a huge mine in Ashland and Bayfield counties.

In recent published reports, Stepp has called the state’s mining laws old and in need of being updated, but she says “it is really up to the Legislature and the governor whether a proposal like this goes forward.

“My opinions on the policy don’t matter now that I’m not a legislator anymore (laughter), so my job now is just to enforce the rules and the laws that are on the books.

“I will continue to do that. Certainly, when we are asked to engage again if they decide to move the proposal forward, we’ll be there to do our job.”

Stepp also praises a recent decision by the Natural Resources Board to delay until 2014 implementation of controversial rules dealing with development on Wisconsin lakes and streams.

The rules were approved in 2010 and scheduled to go into effect in February, but Stepp says the delay was needed because county code administrators were complaining that the rules were unworkable and difficult to interpret.

“There were a lot of problems,” she says. “ While sometimes things sound good in theory, when the practical aspect comes into play, we need to make some changes or make a time-out if you will to make sure we can fix those.”

But Stepp says the DNR will continue to enforce shoreland zoning rules and will not roll back any regulations.

“No one is talking about that,” she says. “Everyone is on the same page about how important it is to protect our shorelands for water quality issues. We all want the same end goal.

“It is a matter of how we get there and making sure it is understandable and clear. It also has to be equally clear for the property owner. So once again, we need to do a much better job when we are explaining what new regulations are so the average guy doesn’t need to hire a consultant or an attorney so he can figure out what he can do on his land.”

Stepp acknowledges that she had some PR work to do with DNR staff when she became chief of the agency, in part because of her past criticisms.

She now praises DNR employees, many of whom she says have embraced her policies.

“My job now is to encourage staff to be supportive and helpful to the public, to be assistant in explaining what the rules and regs are, and to help people get to a yes answer if possible.”


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