Editor's Note: The following guest commentary was submitted before the announcement from the City of Bellingham late Tuesday that the city's Climate Action Fund proposed for the November ballot has been placed on pause for further consideration. The public hearing referenced has been canceled.
In advance of the June 27 public hearing on the mayor’s proposed Climate Action Fund (CAF) tax, Bellingham City Council members have been asking: “Where’s the community support?”
Allies one would normally expect — environmental groups, civic organizations, even the Democratic Party in this overwhelmingly Democratic city — are not lining up. In fact, at the May meeting of Whatcom Democrats, a resolution to revise the ballot measure and postpone it until next year won more than 95% support.
Just as smart consumers look beyond food label claims to the ingredients and nutrition information, voters care about the details behind the “Climate Action Fund” label. What kind of tax? To what extent will revenues actually reduce carbon emissions? What proportion will directly benefit residents?
Tax type and timing
The mayor wants a new property tax, and he wants it this year. The timing is politically tone-deaf. Residents face the highest inflation in four decades. Real estate assessments and sewer rates are rising. There will already be two other property tax measures on this year’s ballot — an extension of the EMS levy, and a measure to fund child care.
Instead of a property tax, Whatcom Democrats propose a progressive utility tax on natural gas. Taxing property only raises rents, which are already too high. Taxing natural gas, on the other hand, provides a direct incentive to reduce fossil fuel use. Unlike a property tax, it’s avoidable. Switch to electricity and the tax goes away.
We should also postpone any ballot measure until next year, to partner with community groups to craft a proposal with broad public support.
Concerned about the delay? The argument that a ballot measure is needed this November is disingenuous since the city could act immediately with part of reserves from unexpectedly-high budget surpluses and federal COVID relief funds. Then, after demonstrating the CAF in action, the mayor could ask for a dedicated funding mechanism next year.
The mayor says these surpluses are being set aside for other uses. He can’t have it both ways. Either climate action is his top priority, or other uses take precedence. To credibly ask residents to tax themselves in this challenging economy, why not lead by example?
Reducing carbon emissions
Presently, the No. 1 proposed use of CAF funds is to purchase “green power” (three-quarters of all funds in year one in the initial council presentation). While wind and solar power are far preferable to fossil fuel, they still have carbon footprints from mining, manufacturing, installation, maintenance and replacement. Adding them to the mix reduces the percentage of electricity derived from fossil fuels, but does not reduce total carbon emissions.
That’s why the greenest energy is the energy we don’t use. We need more negawatts (electricity saved through better insulation and more efficient appliances), not more megawatts. That will enable us to remove dams and save salmon.
Increasingly severe heat waves cause residents to buy air conditioners, whose inefficiency increases carbon emissions. To head this off, we must weatherize homes and install efficient heat pumps that cool as well as heat, with funding assistance to low-income residents. That will reduce emissions and utility bills at the same time.
For renters and owners alike, we are also asking state legislators to require utilities to offer on-bill financing with “bill neutrality,” providing customers with efficiency upgrades at no added cost, since expected savings from energy efficiency exceed on-bill finance costs.
State regulations already require utilities to transition to green electricity in short order. Green power is becoming cheaper than fossil fuel power. So why ask residents to tax themselves to pay more for “green” power they will get anyways?
When running for office, candidates promise “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Only tax money spent here creates jobs here. That’s yet another reason not to purchase electricity from elsewhere. In response to public criticism, the current proposal offers to spend roughly half of funds locally. That is still woefully inadequate. Yes, there are items like heat pumps that are not made locally. But we should rely on local firms and workers to install them.
Also, where’s the firm commitment to a just transition for local workers? And to planting trees to sequester carbon and cool urban microclimates, especially in lower-income neighborhoods?
Climate action is too important to not get it right. That means partnering in designing a package that will win wide public support. That cannot be done by rushing it onto this November’s ballot. Let’s meaningfully include local environmental, labor, party, climate and housing groups to craft a Climate Action Fund we can all embrace.
Andrew Reding is a public policy analyst and chair of Whatcom Democrats.