This story has been corrected since publication. Bellingham's Climate Action Task Force completed its work in Dec 2019; the work described in this article has been conducted by city staff.
The Bellingham Climate Action Task Force presented a list of recommendations to the city council in December 2019, and city staff are now implementing a filtering process to evaluate which task force recommendations should be considered for adoption into the city’s 2018 Climate Protection Action Plan update.
The recommendations outline how the city can reach 100% renewable energy goals by 2030 for municipal facilities and community electricity supply and 2035 for community heating and transportation. City staff are now sorting their recommendations, as well as the pre-existing measures established in the Climate Protection Action Plan, to prioritize which measures should be considered for implementation in the near future.
At the April 27 informational council committee meeting, Renee LaCroix, assistant director for Public Works Natural Resources, proposed a filtering process for the task force recommendations. A flowchart outlined the three-step process: an item needs to make it through staff, council member and public analysis on the feasibility and impact of any adopted measure before it can be formally implemented, LaCroix said.
According to LaCroix, the COVID-19 pandemic has had some impact on what the filtering process will look like. An important part of the evaluations will include public feedback and input. Since staff aren’t able to gather the community together to hear that feedback, new systems will have to be arranged.
Public input participation plans are being developed to allow for public feedback during the time of the pandemic. How the staff engages with the public has changed, LaCroix said, and it will be important to find appropriate outreach and engagement options.
Some climate measures are being considered in a different way because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Items that have the ability to stimulate the economy are being weighted more heavily in the filtration process, taking the economy into account as it continues to feel the impacts of the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, LaCroix said.
“The challenge is to find where we can both stimulate the economy and reach our climate action goals,” LaCroix said. “A lot of the measures in the task force report and the existing Climate Action Plan can actually stimulate the economy. They can create jobs and make funding sources.”
Climate and Energy Manager for the City of Bellingham Seth Vidaña said that city staff are currently researching updating buildings with energy efficient retrofits and renewable energy generation in the commercial sector. Those measures would contribute to economic recovery from the pandemic as well as carbon emission goals.
Despite the looming budget restraints and the changed global circumstances, Vidaña is confident that there will be continued progress. Deciding which measures will take priority and have the largest impact is an important next step, Vidaña said.
“I think we’ll always see forward progress. The question is which paths will maximize that progress,” Vidaña said in an email. “That will depend on a lot of factors – which measures are seeing success in other cities, what funding mechanisms are out there, what the public is interested in, and others.”
At the council committee meeting, councilmember Pinky Vargas emphasized that the filtering process will not result in permanent decisions. Depending on the changing landscape of the pandemic economy, the climate measure rankings will be reassessed and reevaluated as needed.
“We might put things in a filter right now, but funding might be a big question for us and we all know that that’s coming,” Vargas said. “Obviously these rankings could be fluid because of circumstance.”
The economic realities of the COVID-19 pandemic are predicted to have a large effect on the city budget in the coming years, said Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood at the April 27 council committee meeting. Budget considerations are beginning in earnest, and the local Bellingam government is preparing for a tighter budget than previously anticipated.
Fleetwood outlined his priorities for the biennial budget on pages 21 and 22 of a memorandum to the city council. These include “ensuring long term financial stability, continuing implementation of the Climate Action Plan, maintaining city assets, and finding opportunities to improve operational efficiency,” Fleetwood said.
Public health and safety, climate action, affordable housing and homelessness, economic development and environmental remediation remain high priority items, Fleetwood said. These overarching goals will hopefully influence the budget decisions city departments will start to make in the coming months.
“The world changed dramatically very quickly,” Fleetwood said, noting that it was a regular budget year up until a few months ago. “We’re in a time now of significant economic uncertainty.”
Because of the oncoming budget restraints, staff are actively exploring all possible methods of funding, LaCroix said at the council committee meeting. Possible funding mechanisms include grants and Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy and Resilience funding, or C-PACER funding.
The C-PACER loan program, passed in the Washington Legislature in early March, gives Washington counties the choice to implement a voluntary funding system to make clean energy projects and updates more accessible, according to House Bill 2405. Commercial property owners can receive “low-cost, long-term” financing for environmental improvement measures that are paid for with loans attached to the buildings or property. The loan remains with the property until it is repaid, eliminating high costs and debt on the county or property owners, according to the bill.
House Representative Davina Duerr, the primary sponsor of the bill in the 2020 legislative session, was excited about the opportunity the C-PACER loan program presented when she decided to represent the bill. Duerr, who has a background in environmental architecture, knew that the bill had the potential to promote economic development as well as environmental measures. Now, the bill will be able to promote economic recovery, she said.
“There are some concerns that the environmental movement might be in trouble because of the economy and the fallout from the pandemic,” Duerr said. “Now [counties] have a mechanism to do the right thing in a way that is fiscally responsible and feasible for them.”
The bill began its journey through the Washington State House and Senate in early January and was signed by Governor Inslee on March 18. When asked if there was any connection between the timing of the bill and the spread of COVID-19, Duerr laughed.
“It was a total coincidence,” Duerr said. The coincidental timing proved to be important, as the bill will now provide important funding for environmental projects in an economy impacted by a global pandemic.
The legislation, which goes into effect June 11, will play an important role in securing funding to implement climate measures in the current economic situation in Whatcom County. City staff are working closely with Whatcom County to set up the funding mechanism, LaCroix said.
“We’re going to need money, and we’re going to need a lot of money from all sources,” LaCroix said. “I think it is safe to say that it’s going to be a very tight budget because of the pandemic. That being said, climate still remains a priority for the city.”