New Bend council (barely) sticks to climate change path

Votes 4-3 to seek pair of grants for new position

BEND, Ore. - When three new members join four veterans on the Bend City Council, things can change right away. Or not.

At the new council's first regular meeting of the new year Wednesday night, a new yet somehow familiar 4-3 split emerged as councilors debated, then narrowly agreed to seek a pair of two-year matching grants totaling $200,000 from Partners for Places and the Oregon Community Foundation.

That would pay for a program manager, the first step toward implementation of last year's controversial Climate Action Resolution, with the goal of setting goals for reduced carbon emission that supporters say also will make the city government, and eventually the community more cost-efficient.

“I believe in planning,” said Councilor Sally Russell, calling it a “tiny, tiny first step forward” on the climate action plan, which became a campaign issue last fall.

Colleague Nathan Boddie, another supporter, said it was “not lost” on him that scientists just days ago declared 2016 the warmest year on record, for the third straight year.

But new Councilor and Bend businessman Bill Moseley said while some might be surprised to learn he does agree climate change “is a problem facing the planet,” and that he supports limiting carbon emissions, “my primary concern is that it’s just not the priority of the city at this time.”

Moseley noted the results of last August’s survey of city residents who were asked, among other things, what was the biggest issue they saw facing Bend. The results showed 43 percent, the top priority, was the lack of affordable housing, followed by poor street conditions and a sense that the council was out of touch with community wishes – and only "3 percent said climate change.”

That doesn’t mean they don’t consider it a serious issue, Moseley said: “Residents are just communicating it’s not the biggest issue facing the city of Bend right now.”

“If the city had a surplus, if we didn’t have all these competing demands, 25-year snowstorms, you might find me supportive,” he said. “Unfortunately, were not in that situation.”

Moseley also said he’s for “specific, measurable goals. Are we measuring CO2 levels in Bend? That always worries me.”

And he bristled at the idea of paying $130,000 for salary and benefits per year for a climate change manager, when the city’s median income is $42,000.

 “The justice and equity of that disparity … is disturbing,” Moseley said. “I think it sends the wrong message to the community.”

 Moseley added that the city only has “a certain amount of political capital,” and that with issues of lack of funding for roads, sewer and the like, the climate change effort “kind of makes people cringe in the community,” who believe councilors too often go “off in tangents,” rather than hold to what he called a “laser-like focus” on top priorities.

“My own daughter lived in apartments with five people because of the cost of rental housing, Moseley said, adding that he believes action on climate change “should be done at the federal level.”

Fellow new Councilor Bruce Abernethy – returning after several years away – marveled at how two people with much the same viewpoint could come to such a radically different conclusion. He said “one of my proudest moments” of his previous stint was when, as mayor, he signed the Mayor’s Climate Agreement.

“My perspective is that nothing is going to happen at the federal level,” Abernethy said. “If there is going to be change or progress, it’s going to take place at the local and state level.”

He said it appeared the city might have to put as much as $50,000 toward the position, and called it an “incredibly good investment.” Yes, he said, the city faces tall hurdles, such as an estimated $80 million backlog in road needs, but he added, “$50,000 is not going to solve an $80 million problem.” So he said he’s “strongly in favor” of seeking the grant funds and moving ahead with the effort.

Councilor Barb Campbell countered Moseley’s claim that future generations will question why they dealt with climate change and not housing or roads by saying she believes our “children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews are going to ask what did we do, how did we try to help with this specific problem.” She said the grant money will help “leverage resources” to pursue actions that not only will cut carbon emissions but “make the city more efficient,” calling it a “good return on investment.”

New Councilor Justin Livingston disagreed: “My kids, if they can’t afford a place in Bend, are going to ask, what are you going to do about that?” He said Bend has among the cleanest water and air in the nation, and added, “I don’t think this is the right time for this.”

Livingston said he supports some elements of the Climate Action Resolution but added, “I’d like to see the environmental community raise some money to help with that. I can’t support putting the city on the hook for $100,000 before we’ve even gone through the budgeting process.”

Campbell responded that it’s a matter of timing, to apply for the grants before the deadline: “Even if we get both grants, we can flat turn down the money. We’re in no way obligated to spend any money on top (of the grants),” she said, and could instead hire an intern do the work.

While it was not the fiercest of discussions – more like a difference of opinion -- new Mayor Casey Roats said he is asking councilors to wait to be called on to talk, without so much “back and forth” between them. He said he “won’t belabor” his previous criticism of the cost to the community relative to revenues and needs for things like, right now, “heavy plowing.”

In the end, Russell, Boddie, Campbell and Abernethy voted to seek the grant funds while Roats.Moseley and Livingston voted not to.

Coincidentally, a short time later, councilors agreed unanimously to spend $400,000 for a new road grader to help in those bad-winter snow operations.

How much will end up coming from city coffers to pursue climate change efforts might not be crystal clear yet. But it seems pretty clear that whatever path is chosen, it won’t be a unanimously supported one, echoing the split seen elsewhere on the issue of climate change.

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