Climate Plan Could Heighten Budget Worries (Part 2)

Last week I wrote about the City of Fort Collins’ climate action plan and how it could impact the local government’s finances. This week I want to continue the topic.

First of all, this is not a statement about climate change. I’ll leave it to the experts on both sides of the climate wars to duke that out. If the ‘experts’ can’t agree on the issue much less about what to do, it’s beyond the scope and expertise of the local chamber of commerce to resolve.

Nor is this about supporting or opposing the City’s Climate Action Plan. The process for adopting CAP was very dubious, but the plan is so mushy and muddled at this point that it’s hard to figure out what’s good and what’s not.

No, this is more about the cost and accountability issues I raised last week.

The City is presently preparing the next two-year budget. The City Manager will deliver his proposed budget to Council in August, and the Council will approve a final two-year budget in November.

The most striking thing so far about the budget documents is 97 proposals for the Climate Action Plan (CAP) totaling $363 million for 2 years. $363 million!

To put that number in perspective, in 2015 voters renewed two 10-year sales taxes for public facilities and street maintenance that combined will generate around $170 million over the entire decade.

Activists insist that the CAP will actually save us money. Wouldn’t that be great?! Who could possibly be against doing good and saving money? Unfortunately, so far the savings promises are vague, vague and vague.

More likely, paying for the big ideas in CAP would require shifting money out of current programs, adding new fees and increasing existing ones, shifting costs to businesses and residents in terms of new regulations, passing a new tax and dramatically increasing utility rates.

In short, all of this is worth paying close attention to. For our part, the Chamber plans to do just that by asking some basic questions:

  • What is being proposed, what are the expected results, how will those results be measured and how much will this program / policy really cost?
  • Will these recommendations actually benefit the climate or are they meant to be symbolic?
  • Who will pay for the recommendations and in what form? Fees? General fund? Special taxes? Utility rate increases? Forcing costs onto homeowners and businesses with new regulations?
  • What will happen to utility rates? What will happen to the reliability of our power supply?
  • How will these recommendations affect housing affordability and transportation mobility?
  • Will these new CAP programs come at the cost of funding police, fire and other basic city services?
  • If there are offsetting savings, what are they? Are there real examples in our local government or in other communities where such savings have actually been documented or are the savings hypothetical?
  • Will the savings that are being claimed take place in a reasonable period of time such as a decade?
  • If a policy or program is being budgeted on the promise of future savings, where will the money come from to make the upfront investment?

One of the City Council members suggested last week that perhaps a special tax should be put on the ballot to fund CAP. We don’t have a position on that since it’s just general idea at this point, but he raises a very good question. When you ask voters for money, you need to very clear what you want and why. That would certainly force clarity.

There may end up being some worthwhile recommendations in the 97 CAP proposals. It’s the job of the City Council to sort all of that out. Here’s hoping they ask some of the same kinds of questions we’re asking. If they do, some good programs could be adopted but without crushing the City’s budget and burdening businesses and residents with new costs and regulations.