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Boulder County Commissioners Eye Uses for New Sustainability Tax

March 6, 2019
Materials are sorted at the Boulder County Recycling Center in June. A proposed use of the sustainability tax, which the county will begin collecting next year, is to improve the infrastructure at the center.

Since 2011 Boulder County has envisioned a sustainability tax to expand its environmentally conscious programs. That vision was blurred by the 2013 flood, but now that many of the communities affected by the flood have been rebuilt, the county commission is anxious to refocus some of its energy — and money — on sustainability.

“I think from a state level there’s a real turn happening about climate work and the benefits it has for businesses and individuals, so that’s a real opportunity for us,” Commissioner Matt Jones said. “We’ve been thought of as a leader in this space for a long time now and we need to keep that up and find ways to extend our reach into other places where people want to do the same kind of work but haven’t had as much experience doing it.”

With collections of a sustainability tax starting in 2020, commissioners on Tuesday discussed how the county will spend the estimated $7.5 million generated annually by the .125 percent sales tax, which was approved by voters in 2016 by a 70 percent majority. The tax was approved for a 15-year term.

While final decisions on how to spend th money will have to wait until budget discussions in October, the tax stipulates up to 10 percent of total proceeds will be shared as grant funding for municipal sustainability projects.

The rest of the money will be deposited into a Sustainability Projects and Program Fund, which commissioners will allocate each year as part of the budgeting process.

Anxious to begin the allocation process after years of planning, the Boulder County Sustainability Office on Tuesday presented a list of recommendations to commissioners suggesting the money be spread across a huge range of projects including water conservation; recycling and renewable energy infrastructure; clean energy initiatives, such as Partners for a Clean Environment Program (PACE); transportation programs, such as Mobility for All, and investments in sustainable agricultural.

Though many of these programs have already achieved success, without a stable source of funding it’s been difficult for the county to continue to expand them.

For example, 18,000 homeowners and 3,100 businesses have participated in the PACE program, driving more than $62 million in the local economy for clean energy and saving an estimated 42 million gallons of water each year when combined with similar sustainability projects.

But, the low-income weatherization program, which provides qualifying households with free insulation, storm windows, and energy-efficient refrigerators, was limited in 2018 due to a loss of funding from the state.

With funding from the sustainability tax, Susie Strife, the Sustainability Office’s sustainability coordinator, suggested the program could expand to allow low-income households access to solar panels, solar gardens and health and safety measures.

“Key programs like Energy Smart, low-income weatherization and some of our transportation projects are grant funded and those grants were sunsetting around 2012 and 2013,” Strife said. “The sustainability tax really presents us the opportunity to build off of and expand our existing programs. It’s really important to note that we are open to game-changing ideas, to innovation and to emerging markets as part of our path forward.”

In addition to funding sustainable programs such as PACE and nationally recognized Benefits Boulder County, which offered discounts to those who purchased electric vehicles and bikes before running out of money, the Sustainability Office stressed the need to update infrastructure at the county’s hazardous waste and recycling centers.

For instance, the recycling center has diverted 650,000 tons of recyclables from the landfill and the hazardous materials management facility diverts hazardous materials from 19,000 homes and business each year. But the countywide diversion rate is still at 35 percent.

“There is a clear need for additional opportunities in funding infrastructure and services to ensure we meet that big goal (of zero waste by 2025),” Strife said. “Studies show 60 percent of our landfill is made up of construction and demolition materials, so providing an outlet for this material to be recycled and reused is essential to showcase our commitment to zero waste.”

During an expansive public survey conducted between 2011 and 2016, when the tax was still being designed, Strife said there was significant public feedback from mountain communities regarding their desire to join in the zero-waste initiative, but that they could only do so with increased services and infrastructure.

While recommendations from the Sustainability Office might seem like a lot, Strife said she worked the numbers over several times in the last year and that, “the biggest questions is the infrastructure.” Otherwise, she said she believes the $7.5 million will provide enough money to support the county’s various sustainability programs.

Along with funding the sustainable advocacy group Communities for Climate Action, which lobbies the state Legislature for more progressive climate policies, commissioners said they believe expanding funding for all these programs will not only help improve the environment in Boulder County, but also serve as an example for other communities to do the same.

“When I first ran (for office) way back 2012 this was something that had been discussed and dreamed about and it’s so gratifying to see it finally coming into fruition,” Commissioner Elsie Jones said. “We really do have a ripple effect, not just across the state, but across the country, and we really need to have that ripple effect. I’m really excited these dollars can continue and expand that.”

John Spina: 303-473-1389, jspina@times-call.com or twitter.com/jsspina24