La Crosse County is requesting input on its plans for spending ARPA funds. You can see their preliminary document, a summary, here and fill out the survey here.
I have done both and have the following comments.
While ARPA is meant to "recover" from the social and economic damage wrought be the novel coronavirus, there is no reason the funds can't be used to prepare for the NEXT and far more serious "pandemic," the climate crisis. In fact, to NOT consider how plans and budgets will work to mitigate global heating is, to me, a dereliction of duty.
With this in mind, considering that the county's preliminary plan does not mention climate change once, nor, really, target any funding toward its already-passed goal of reducing county carbon emissions. The closest we get is one item of a nine-item list:
Programs (grants/low interest loans) under this category would be developed to encourage homeowners, farmers, businesses, and other organizations to install renewable/green infrastructure on their properties. Initial capital costs often preclude the use of renewable energy producing systems and their long-term savings. Using ARPA funding for these expenses will stimulate the renewable energy economy, while producing long-term energy savings for homeowners, farmers and businesses.
To me, this is far too timid and, almost, criminal. The climate crisis must be recognized and must be front and center in our planning. Period.
At this point, we don't rely on "encouraging" people to do what MUST be done, rather we need to decide on a zero carbon goal (done) and then work out policies and use resources to make that happen. So, to me, this summary should include something like, "we will use funds, as allowed, to improve bicycle and public transportation infrastructure and reward individuals and businesses who create plans to travel and commute using lower carbon modes. We will offer grants for those who commit to reducing or eliminating the need for private vehicle commuting. Using ARPA funds to eliminate the high dependence on private cars will improve transportation equity, put more money in low-income residents' pockets, and reduce our carbon emissions. We will subsidize weatherization to near or net-zero standards. We will facilitate transitioning from fossil gas for heating and cooling. We will assess the climate impacts of all programs funded by ARPA money." That's just one part of an idea about how these funds can build a more sustainable future.
The survey itself divides things that should not be divided, I think. For example, in discussing housing, there is no discussion of transportation, but these two are intimately related as we saw in 2020. Will ARPA funds be used to grant or build housing that is out in the middle of nowhere, far from services and jobs? To me, no. Priority should be given to ensuring housing, especially for low- and moderate-income residents, is near where people need to go. Or, if not near, then accessible by public transportation and bicycle. Otherwise, the funds are wasted by subsidizing unsustainable systems that are killing our planet.
And, for some reason, equity is not mentioned in anything, even though the ARPA funds are supposed to work on addressing inequities. Equity is part of every decision, and making decisions that will address the climate crisis will also address issues of equity.
I also think, from a climate action standpoint, the section on housing is far too limited. Understand that ARPA funds may be used for, "home repairs, weatherization, or other needs," with the aim of addressing economic impacts of income inequality exacerbated by the pandemic. Why not use this to its fullest climate action potential?
People who need to pay high rents for drafty and inefficient housing in poor condition are at higher risk for health problems which cost healthcare dollars and lost wages and decreased productivity. People who have to pay high energy bills because their housing is in poor condition have less money for other basic needs. So, why not commit as much ARPA funding to refurbishing existing housing to net-zero standards and, leveraging other funding sources if needed, installing solar on this housing which could eliminate people's utility bills and improve health outcomes and reduce income inequality.
Why not use ARPA funds to BUILD public housing that uses micro- grids on net-zero buildings to eliminate energy bills altogether. Solarizing public housing is a win-win project. These are not loopy dream unicorns. These are things people are already doing. And, again, transportation. Can new public housing be near shops, jobs, and services? Can there be public transport to serve it (and can that public transport run every 15 minutes most of the day and night?) The national average annual cost to own and operate a car is more than $9,000! Public transportation is an equity issue.
What about the food system?. Lack of food, already a problem for many in our area, became a crisis during the pandemic. The business as usual solution is for richer people to buy and donate canned beans and boxes of macaroni and cheese that have been, probably, unsustainably grown, processed, food-colored, and packaged, then shipped thousands of miles to a grocery store, with each step along the way taking a cut and driving up the cost of the "food." And, often, the processed, packaged, shipped food is not healthy and bad for the planet resulting in societal costs paid by all of us. What would a climate-centered recovery for food insecurity look like that also seeks to address lack of good jobs, saving rural areas (from bacon CAFOs), repairing environmental damage caused by industrial animal products factories, reducing hunger and income inequality. Why can't ARPA funds be used to assess how much actual food (not GMO corn and beans for animal feed and, really, not animals) is currently available in our region and how much more could be sustainably grown. Our current 3,000-mile food footprint does not have to (and should not) be the norm. How can we encourage, support, and build a much more robust local and regional food production system?
Consider, also, the other systems now in place from tourism to lack of worker control over their own labor (why not help more co-ops start?) to child care to consumption to schools and more. You cannot solve a problem called by a bad system within the bad system. Who will think outside the system to find better ways?
We just have to think totally differently about our priorities and communities going forward. The old systems have brought us to the very brink of disaster!! We have to connect systems that support a good life like clean transportation that does not depend on personal wealth, safe healthy housing that does not depend on personal wealth, access to a full life that does not rely on personal wealth.
Please weigh in on these plans. Encourage the county to make climate crisis the number one main concern. Show them how things connect. Speak up.