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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Condon touts progress on environmental policies, chooses not to sign climate change ordinance

Dale Arnold, who works for the city of Spokane's waste water department, examines the new compressed natural gas refueling area and the new CNG garbage trucks on display at the opening of the Spokane Central Service Center Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

When members of the City Council approached Mayor David Condon in June with plans to address Spokane’s environmental policies, he responded with a list of things the city was already doing to cut costs and pollutants.

“It’s an area we’ve focused for five or six years now,” Condon said.

Last month, the council passed a law committing the city to a list of sustainability goals and establishing a plan to combat climate change, which it acknowledged as being driven by human activity. Condon said this week he wouldn’t sign the ordinance, reiterating the progress that’s been made.

He’s also confident, he said, in a three-member team at City Hall that’s now tracking Spokane’s efforts toward meeting environmental goals established before the mayor took office.

City lawmakers said they were puzzled by their law’s chilly reception. They said they believed they had arrived at the same page as the mayor after cutting a reference to the Paris Agreement, an international climate treaty they acknowledged had little to do with local governance.

Condon stressed the work underway was being done in an economically conscious way, which, he said, was uncertain to continue under the new law.

“The big factor is the financial sustainability of this,” the mayor said in an interview. “We need to constantly look at the what the cost-benefit to our citizens is. We cannot price them out of living in the city.”

Condon’s administration has made that calculation multiple times during his five-year tenure at City Hall. After taking office, he quickly rolled back proposed rate increases for water use that punished heavy users, which he now says “exploited those of limited income.” Under the rate system revised in Condon’s administration, water use has continued to decrease, the mayor said. His financial team worked to scale down a stormwater tank system aimed at ending the discharge of raw sewage in the Spokane River. The reduced project along with the use of loans achieved most of the same goals, but avoided proposed multiple annual double-digit hikes to fund construction.

Members of the City Council who pushed passage of the law said they didn’t understand the mayor’s hesitancy. Even without his signature, the bill becomes law.

“What we passed was very practical and locally based,” City Councilman Breean Beggs said. “I feel like it’s a really good product for local government to come up with.”

The law, as written, does three things: It acknowledged human activity as the main cause of climate change. It set a greenhouse gas reduction goal at 30 percent of 2005 levels by 2030, reaffirming a city goal created in 2009. Finally, it adopted a sustainability plan also passed in 2009 that called for many of the things Condon’s administration already has been doing to promote environmental stewardship. That includes purchasing new energy-efficient vehicles, like the compressed natural gas garbage trucks that are replacing the all-diesel fleet.

Condon called that sustainability plan “a guiding principle, goal-oriented plan” while what is being developed internally by the city’s Environmental Programs team provides “actual steps going toward implementation, and how we make that happen.”

“Some of it I agree with, some of it I would challenge,” Condon said of the 2009 plan.

City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said the only issue she has heard from the mayor’s office in regard to the ordinance, after the Paris accord was stripped, was concern about locking future city lawmakers to the greenhouse gas level cap. She said passing that limit into law, as well as the sustainability plan, eliminates the mystery of what the city must do to drive down future emissions.

“What we’ve heard is the business community wants predictability,” Kinnear said. “Well, here it is.”

Cadie Olsen has been overseeing the city’s Environmental Programs Department for a year. Olsen comes to Spokane by way of California, where she served in the state’s equivalent of the Ecology Department and focused on water pollutants.

Olsen’s team has developed its own 10-step implementation plan that quantifies progress since the passage of the 2009 plan under Mayor Mary Verner. Condon said the plan will form the basis of the city’s financial requests of the City Council for investment in water conservation, reduction in car trips and redeveloping industrially contaminated land, among other goals.

Olsen said the 2009 plan was “aspirational.”

“It was meant to change the culture, and it did,” Olsen said.

Drafters say the plan was never meant to be a final product. The city was acting on a yearlong grant from the state to come up with specific actions to promote environmental stewardship, but ran out of time.

Olsen’s staff was not consulted for the City Council’s ordinance, but Beggs and Kinnear praised her department’s work. The team has tracked greenhouse gas emissions and provided the groundwork for the city’s declaration it was approaching energy neutrality.

Spokane benefits from owning the hydroelectric Upriver Dam and the region’s only Waste-to-Energy Plant that creates energy in a process that includes burning trash. Those sources created more than 674 billion BTUs of energy in 2015. The city government used 683 billion BTUs in its operations.

Mike Petersen, executive director of the conservation group The Lands Council and a participant in the drafting of the plan under Verner, said the energy achievement “was pretty big” and praised efforts by the city to cut down on energy use.

“We’re reducing our energy use now, and setting an example within the city’s services,” Petersen said. “We’re giving ourselves a buffer, as the city continues to grow.”

But Petersen, who served on the panel creating the plan with members of Greater Spokane Incorporated, the Spokane Homebuilders Association and environmental groups, said he was also confused why that group’s work shouldn’t be codified.

“Whether you’re making recommendations for the city, or implementing them as part of a policy, to me it’s the same thing,” Petersen said. “Our city has committed to do something.”

Condon said adopting the plan by resolution, which the city has already done, allowed lawmakers to discuss the cost and benefits of each step taken as part of the regular budget process.

“The financial impacts need to be known,” the mayor said. “At this time, they aren’t known.”

Beggs and Kinnear point to the cost savings the city already has achieved under measures the mayor has taken as a reason to make permanent the changes requested eight years ago.

“If the mayor doesn’t agree with some of the provisions, I respect that,” Kinnear said. “What I was trying to do was highlight the good work that he’s done, and all the things that we’ve done that are positive steps forward as a city.”