Salem councilors favoring new revenue for climate action plan

(Caleb Wolf / Special to Salem Reporter)

Salem Councilor Chris Hoy stood in his yard last week, in the 80-degree heat, frustrated by budgets.

It was May 9, the day after the Salem Budget Committee recommended a budget for the next fiscal year that did not include money for a climate action plan. He still hopes to change that before the budget is finalized.

“We’re the only major city in the state that doesn’t have a climate action plan,” he said. “That is reprehensible. That is inexcusable. We’re the state capital. We should be a leader.”

The challenge to Hoy and other councilors who hope to see Salem develop a climate action plan is how to be mindful of an uncertain landscape for city finances.

The budget committee on May 8 recommended a budget that would save the general fund approximately $2.5 million next year and $700,000 in the future, city officials tell Salem Reporter, as a way to curb fast-rising expenses. That entails cutting some staff, ending a couple of programs and halving the city’s contribution to a program that helps homeless people afford housing.

The budget isn’t final, however, until Salem City Council adopts it in June.

Hoy and Councilor Tom Andersen say there will be at least one proposal during the council’s deliberations: find money for the climate action plan. Hoy said he wants to ensure the city is tracking and planning to curtail emissions.

“It gives us something to strive for and something to measure against,” he said. “if we don’t have these plans, just these vagaries, we’re never going to be driving towards something. We’re never going to get to (a goal).”

Andersen agreed that Salem needs to follow other cities’ path that already have climate plans. Portland crafted its climate plan in the 1990s. Eugene is working on its second climate action plan. Corvallis enacted its plan in 2017 and Bend is currently developing one.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here,” he said. “There are other cities that have climate action plans. Maybe we just need a consultant to do that kind of (early) survey work.”

A climate action plan would more closely study Salem’s carbon emissions, waste management and planning policies, and set goals to curb carbon emissions for decades to come.

“You measure and balance all of those things and then come up with an actual climate action plan,” said Linda Wallmark, a co-coordinator with the Salem chapter of the environmental group 350.org.

The first step in a climate action plan is nearly complete, Wallmark said, in the form of a city-financed greenhouse gas inventory. A draft of the inventory was released May 8.

The preliminary results from 2016 testing show Salem’s carbon emissions from buildings — for lighting, heating, air conditioning and more — is about “middle-of-the-pack” compared with six other Oregon cities, but it’s second-worst in emissions from vehicles.

Hoy, who recently spent close to $8,000 outfitting his home with solar panels to power his Tesla, said that’s not acceptable.

“Taking care of the planet has always been a priority to me,” he said. “I didn’t just wander into this stuff.”

The budget will likely still have to be worked out. Salem staff say there isn’t enough money or city planners for a full-scale climate action plan.

The Community Development Department, which would administer the program, currently has one long-range planner.

According to department director Norm Wright, that lone planner is currently in charge of work to update the city’s comprehensive plan called “Our Salem.” That planner also would help Salem change its codes if the Legislature approves statewide zoning changes.

Wright estimates a climate action plan would cost $120,000 to complete and require four full-time employees to administer.

“I think the big concern that we have is we are so committed right now to the current planning efforts we have currently underway that we cannot easily take on this project without a significant investment,” said Wright. “We would need a pretty significant investment that the budget isn’t quite capable of supporting.”

Andersen believes the city could at least start the work. He proposed the budget committee to give an extra $50,000 for a consultant to get started on a climate action plan.

Five councilors voted in favor of Andersen’s motion during the budget meeting, but did not notch the required 10 votes a budget committee needs to pass a motion. Andersen said the councilor votes – a majority of the council — bodes well for when council discusses the budget in June.

Councilor Jim Lewis opposed the recommendation because a climate action plan was not as high a priority as others like paying for more police. He anticipates the city council will budget for the plan anyway.

“The question I have is whether the request to spend money on these things, whether it will be coming out of reserves or whether included in the motion will be an idea of where to get funding,” he said.

More revenue does, potentially, loom for the city. The city is considering new utility fees or an employee-paid payroll tax that could bring millions into the city’s general fund.

Those ideas are still nebulous and it’s unclear whether voters will get their say.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.