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Federal Stimulus Grants May Help Locals Meet New Planning Mandates

There's never been a weirder time to try to do planning in California.

On the one hand, the state has made climate change a major priority and it's driving local government efforts in a hundred different ways, ranging from greenhouse gas analyses in environmental documents to switching out light bulbs in city corporation yards.

On the other hand, the state is cutting back all over the place because of the ever-more-dismal budget crisis. And this is going to make it hard for local governments to meet the requirements the state is laying out.

For example, shortly after passing SB 375 which seeks to reduce driving -- the state cut back on assistance to public transit considerably.

In addition, the state is encouraging localities to prepare climate action plans or at least include climate as a major issue in their general plan updates. However, the state has not appropriated any funds for such plans and, most recently, has proposed balancing its own budget by borrowing $2 billion 8% of property tax revenues from locals, which will make it more difficult for cities and counties to pay for planning out of their general funds.

So how will the locals pay for these plans? Surely not through the federal stimulus package. After all, plans are, almost by definition, not "shovel-ready." At best, a plan leads to a project, which then requires design and environmental review before it's shovel-ready.

But wait. The stimulus package does contain one pot of money that can be used for climate-related planning, if local governments apply for it and if the planners can successfully arm-wrestle the public works department for the money. That money is in the Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grant program, which is funneling more than $100 million into California, including $70 million directly into the coffers of cities and counties around the state.

Although it's part of the stimulus package the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act the energy block grants are not like the other pots of stimulus money. They can be used for a wide range of purposes, and they do not have any performance requirements attached to them. That is because the energy block grant was one of those ideas kicking around Washington, D.C., for a long time looking for an excuse to be funded. The idea was hatched by the U.S. Conference of Mayors some years ago, and now has been included in the stimulus package.

Especially in the context of current local government budgets in California, the dollars are huge. Small cities such as Brea and Culver City get around $200,000 apiece. Large suburban cities population 100,000 to 200,000 are eligible for somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million. Bigger cities like Riverside, Chula Vista, and Anaheim get $2 million to $3 million. Very large cities get even more. The deadline for submission of proposals to the federal Department of Energy is June 25.

Like regular block grants, most of the money goes straight to the locals. For jurisdictions of fewer than 35,000 people, the money is funneled through the California Energy Commission. And that's not all: There's another $20 million or so that the Energy Commission can give out however it wants. The criteria have not been established but planning is definitely on the list.

So how can all this dough be used for planning? Well, for one thing, the federal energy block grants criteria are very broad. According to the state Energy Commission, the money can be used to engage in activities that will:

Reduce fossil fuel emissions in the jurisdiction
Reduce total energy use
Develop renewable energy sources
Improve energy efficiency in transportation and buildings.

Sounds like the perfect general plan funding source in the wake of AB 32 and SB 375. Except for one thing: Planners aren't the only folks in California local government who want this money. In fact, most of the time the planners don't even know about this money.

Thanks to Jerry Brown and other factors, locals feel a lot of pressure these days to reduce greenhouse gases and energy consumption. SB 375 notwithstanding, there are two areas of great concern. Land use is one. The other is the actual operations of the local governments themselves. And this is where the competition for the energy block grant money is likely to come from.

Brown's famous 2007 settlement with San Bernardino County, forcing the county to implement AB 32, focused on two things: first, minimizing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions created by land use decisions the county makes, and, second, minimizing emissions from county operations (see CP&DR, September 2007). In other words, the attorney general concluded that development permits and the agency's own operations are the two major items that generate GHGs which are within the agency's control and therefore those were his targets.

At the same time, many local governments have gotten a lot more sophisticated in understanding the energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from their own buildings, fleets, and so forth. They're interested in retooling their recreational facilities, their corporation yards, their municipal buildings, their water and wastewater utilities all the big energy-sucking operations. Replacing those things will help them get the GHGs down and also reduce their operating costs for electricity. But they don't want to invest their own capital funds because the payback period is so long 5, 10, sometimes 30 or 40 years. So the first call on "free money" for energy conservation in most cities is likely to go to public works.

But that doesn't ace out planners. California will also be getting a separate $226 million from the stimulus package for the State Energy Program a program that does require local governments (and others) to forecast and document the actual energy savings from the expenditures. That's the kind of money more likely to flow into energy-saving capital projects, and it's difficult for cities and counties to combine the two programs (state energy and energy block grants) because the reporting requirements and the performance measures are different.

Finally, don't forget the California Energy Commission is still sitting on $20 million it can distribute however it wants. The Energy Commission may yet decide the highest priorities are general plans and climate action plans.

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