A recent audit of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource’s recycling program found the agency to be noncompliant with state statutes and its own rules.
The review, conducted by the nonpartisan Legislature Audit Bureau, looked at the DNR’s recycling programs, which provide grants to municipalities and counties to cover a portion of the cost of their local programs.
The audit found that while the DNR was spending money on activities related to recycling, in some cases the specific use was not allowed by statutes.
For instance, $807,400 that was intended to be used for administrative matters instead was spent on the reuse of industrial byproducts, such as coal ash, paper mill sludge and foundry sand. The products were reused in construction or other means, in order to avoid sending them to a landfill.
In a response letter to the audit, DNR Secretary Preston Cole said the reuse of industrial byproducts kept the materials out of landfills and helped industry save on disposal costs.
Cole’s letter said “the department considers the expenditures to be consistent with state recycling policy,” but said the DNR would seek other funding sources for the so-called “beneficial use” program.
Also noted in the report was the Clean Sweep program, which provides reimbursement to communities for collecting and disposing of hazardous wastes, agricultural pesticides and prescription drugs. That program is run by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
The Audit Bureau found the department did not require grant recipients to verify their expenditures for which reimbursement was requested.
The DNR’s recycling programs were allocated $20 million in the 2019-20 budget year, with the Clean Sweep program given $750,000, according to the report.
Randy Romanski, the DATCP secretary designee, said in a response letter that the department is establishing a verification system to ensure all spending is documented.
The audit also found the DNR reviewed fewer local recycling programs than the 5% required by state law.
According to the report, the DNR conducted 53 interviews and 38 site visits in 2015, but sharply decreased reviews after that. In 2016, only one interview was done. In 2017, only 10 were done and in 2018 only 28 interviews were done. In 2019, 73 interviews were conducted, but no site visits.
Evers was elected in 2018, defeating Republican Gov. Scott Walker, and took office in January 2019.
George Wolbert, director of the DNR’s waste and management program said in the past, staff members would go to each municipality and meet with local officials in person.
“During the last decade, leadership determined that wasn’t the best way to spend staff time,” he said. “So they tried to find more efficient ways.”
Instead, the department started to rely more on phone calls, as well as group meetings in which municipalities near each other shared ideas and solutions.
The Audit Bureau also found that though the DNR was conducting interviews, it did not analyze the results of the calls with the recycling programs, as intended, or create guidance to address any concerns raised.
The Bureau also found the DNR to be non-compliant with its own administrative rules that require municipalities and counties to collect certain amounts of recyclable materials each year. Rather than breaking it down by categories, the department only required the localities to report the total amount of materials collected.
The DNR said it would be virtually impossible to require reports on specific types of materials because facilities generally don’t keep track of that information, meaning the department can’t enforce its own rules as written.
Wolbert anticipates the department will begin to look at revising the rules — last changed in 2005 — over the next 12 to 18 months, unless the Legislature were to pass a new law that changes the recycling program before then.
Laura Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and twitter.com/SchulteLaura.