Just three months ago, Camden looked to be a pacesetter in what many see as the biggest challenge of our age: eliminating greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the climate changes that are coming regardless. In January, enthusiastic town residents drove to an innovative covid-era special town meeting at the Snow Bowl, approving ambitious energy efficiency improvements to town buildings, and offering overwhelming -- albeit non-binding -- support for the state’s climate goals.
Select Board members had explicitly declared climate issues a top priority. Town officials appeared knowledgeable and anxious to act. Camden had already installed a solar array and adopted an LED street lighting scheme, and it was the first town in Maine to sign on to the UN-supported Global Covenant of Mayors. It seemed on the verge of a deal to help fund a solar project large enough to cover municipal electricity needs, including at the Snow Bowl, and of an “Efficiency Camden” program to fund energy-efficiency improvements by low-income residents.
A series of “Let’s Talk Energy” presentations on residential, commercial, town and state initiatives for transitioning to more efficient and climate-friendly energy use was getting underway, thanks to Nancy Harmon-Jenkins and others on the town’s Energy and Sustainability Committee, supported by the Camden Public Library.
Then, like air rushing out of a balloon, the momentum seemed to disappear. The “Efficiency Camden” project was shelved and solar talk went silent. Town Manager Audra Caler recently told the Select Board that a Knox County project may yet materialize, and Camden is not apparently at fault for the delays, but frustration remains. The Camden Energy Committee was put into “abeyance” at least until July, along with the town’s other advisory committees. Energy transition goals are seemingly off the agenda. The “Let’s Talk Energy” series is great, but the Select Board is taking a hands-off stance.
What happened? And can Camden get back on track? The culprit seems mainly to be lack of time by town officials given the many other issues pressing for their attention, from a need for affordable housing, to decaying dams on the Megunticook River, to fortifying the harbor against rising seawater and adapting it to 21st Century needs, to finding good uses for town-owned properties.
Luckily, there’s an obvious answer: Hire a “sustainability” or “climate action” officer, as Rockland has. This isn’t a novel or radical idea. Portland and South Portland each have one, as does Falmouth and, jointly, the communities of Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, Wells, Ogunquit, Kittery and York. Not to mention Rockland and probably other Maine towns I haven’t discovered.
What would such a person do? Help the town set and meet climate-and other sustainability goals, in areas ranging from renewables and energy efficiency, to adapting to climate change and rising sea levels, to encouraging recycling and other waste-saving measures. And find grants and means of paying for these measures. Saving energy and cutting waste saves money, after all – perhaps enough in time to make the position self-financing.
How to pay for a new position in the meantime? Initially, odds are that a grant could be obtained through the $3 trillion federal Coronavirus Relief Act -- $1.1 billion of which Gov. Janet Mills is proposing to spend in a stimulus package -- or President Joe Biden’s heavily climate-oriented $3 trillion infrastructure bill.
If this doesn’t work, the town might consider a property tax surcharge on high-value residences that are mostly unoccupied, indicating that many of the owners don’t pay Maine taxes on the bulk of their incomes. A fee on unoccupied houses has been proposed in the state legislature by South Portland Rep. Christopher Kessler. His bill would levy a charge of one half of one percent on the value of residences – not including land – unoccupied for more than half the year. Property owners earning less than 150% of area median income and non-winterized summer camps would be exempt. The clear target is relatively wealthy owners of second, or third, or fourth homes. People for whom such a charge would not matter much.
Half of the revenue raised under Kessler’s Act to Increase Affordable Housing and Reduce Property Taxes through an Impact Fee on Vacant Residences would go to fund affordable housing and homeless services. The other half would go into Maine’s “Homestead Exemption Program,” which lowers the property tax burden of full-time residents. Some of the resulting savings to Camden and other towns could go to help pay for a sustainability officer.
Kessler’s bill faces heavy headwinds, starting with opposition from the powerful real estate lobby, but this wouldn’t stop Camden from borrowing his idea at a local scale. All that failing, Camden could probably just squeeze a part-time salary into the budget, much as it increased one parks and recreation position from part to full-time without boosting taxes in the budget slated to come before town voters on June 8.
Climate change is the biggest crisis facing the world today, and Camden has the financial and ethical wherewithal to be in the forefront. But the only way to stay out front is to have a competent and committed person leading the charge.