Good Staff

Maple Ridge City Hall is blessed with some amazing staff.

Deeply held convictions must always be subject to new information, even if it means giving up a dream. Image by Now House.

In 2013 I was certain that my municipal government and BC Hydro were the right partners to get our Home Energy Retrofit Project off the ground. However, I learned that City Council had given staff instructions to spend no new money and anyway, the most cost-effective way for Maple Ridge to fight climate change was to stem the flow of cars commuting in and out of town every day. These were inconvenient facts that messed with my plans.

Similarly, in Metro Vancouver’s current Anti-Congestion Tax Plebiscite, voting yes to an increase in Provincial Sales Tax to pay for better transit also feels wrong to many people. There is a deeply held belief that we are being cheated, in spite of the fact that we live in one of the most advanced liberal democracies in the world in which every dollar of public money can be traced.

When I hear this perspective I often think back to my experience with my local government here in Maple Ridge. I especially think of that time when I learned how transparent and accountable our government really is.

On November 1st 2013, I had a pivotal meeting with staff of the then District of Maple Ridge (now the City of Maple Ridge don’t you know). Honestly, I was at the end of my willingness to volunteer my time in the name of acheiving a project to benefit the community and the planet. I needed a life-line.

I proposed that the District apply to BC Hydro under their Sustainable Communities Program for funding to create a program aimed at helping Maple Ridge homeowners reduce their home energy consumption and creating a local green-building economy. I had already drafted a rough application.

I had also met with then-Mayor Ernie Daykin and all the City Councillors. They were all very supportive of the idea. I even presented to Council. Everybody smiled. It was a good day.

BC Hydro’s program required a small contribution of under $15000 from the District which could be in-kind (it could be used to pay for Municipal staff time). BC Hydro would pay a maximum of $50K and 25% of the total funds had to come from the municipality.

Retrofitting existing homes saves the energy and materials of building new ones, helps the local economy, and reduces energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. It also maintains the character and affordability of neighbourhoods. There are a lot of justifications for government help in this noble pursuit.
Image by Now House.

In our meeting staff explained (gently) that from a municipal perspective, it didn’t add up.

Even if Maple Ridge Council had not directed staff to avoid new spending to keep property taxes low, how would Maple Ridge benefit, they asked? In Nelson, where a successful municipal retrofit project is in place, the city owns the electrical utility so any energy savings means money to Nelson. In Maple Ridge, BC Hydro provides the power. Our retrofit project would help BC Hydro meet its energy targets, the municipality reduce its carbon footprint and a relatively small number of homeowners reduce their energy bills and that was if it worked as well as we hoped.

There would be no direct financial benefit to Maple Ridge therefore it was not something Council or the public would support.

This line of thinking was all too familiar. I hear it in the question everyone asks about solar panels, “how long until they pay for themselves?” as if that were their only purpose.

Even in my bitterness at hearing this, it struck me that this is what a good municipal staff does, it takes Council direction seriously.

The imminent costs of climate change are not part of this calculation.

The preservation of neighbourhood character and all the social and economic benefits therein are not, either.

My last hope was the carbon tax.

Some years ago, in a key moment of forward-thinking, the Province of BC implemented a revenue neutral carbon tax which, among other things, encourages local governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A calculation is made of how much carbon your city is emitting and it pays accordingly. Your city can use that money for projects that reduce its carbon footprint. If it does not come up with any acceptable proposals, the funds are used to reduce GHGs somewhere else.

This system has been proven effective and good for the economy and things are looking up that Alberta, with its new government, may join BC in putting a price on carbon. (What we really need is a national program, but we’ll take what we can get!)

Unfortunately, even though the retrofit project would reduce Maple Ridge’s carbon footprint, the biggest GHG contributors are still our cars and reducing the number of cars driving in and out of Maple Ridge is the low-hanging fruit. Encouraging businesses and employment inside Maple Ridge reduces commutes and even generates tax revenue and that’s what council and staff had been working hard on.

I had to concede the point.

That’s what we do when inconvenient facts step in front of our convictions.

I walked out of that meeting pretty depressed. Why do we have to pick and choose which climate action we take? We should be doing them all.

At very least we should be doing every little thing we can to create options for people to get out of their cars. (See how I brought it back to transit, there?)

It has been a little disheartening, then, to hear that our new Mayor and members of our new City Council, elected in November 2014, have actively campaigned against funding transit improvements with the PST. The argument seems to be that there is not enough in the plan for Maple Ridge, and the improvements won’t happen soon enough.

It is my position that climate change is too urgent a challenge to delay action any further by putting off a funding option in hopes that something better will come along. Almost all of the stake-holders are backing the Mayors’ transit plan, and it’s not easy to achieve that sort of consensus.

Looking at the region as a whole, transit tax funds should be spent where they will move the most people. Maple Ridge has only about 80 000 people. I’m glad our mayor is advocating for more service here, but a no vote is going to slow down improvements, not speed them up.

On a more positive note, with a new Mayor and Council there is hope that the community retrofit project will find support, but for now, I must focus on our own home and hope that we can act as a role model for others to follow or, at least, learn from.

NOTE: I have a policy of only naming people or organizations when I have something nice to say about them. I am breaking that rule here because I believe City Staff are busy enough without fielding potential questions from the public about my blog. The staff members’ names in that meeting are not a secret, however, and I’d be happy to share if you get in touch.

With that in mind, here is a very helpful summary that staff sent me later that depressing All Saints’ Day, 2013. I think she put a lot of things better than I and rather than accepting my paraphrased version above, please compare hers to mine.

Hi James;

Thanks for the discussion today. I appreciate your passion and the time you’ve put into the issues. We covered a lot of ground in the two hours, and in previous meetings, and I wanted to summarize what I heard. Please let me know if I’ve missed anything.

There are two stand-alone issues that we discussed:

1.            your own heritage home renovation and energy retrofit, and,

2.            your desire to see a broader community project that will encourage homeowners to retrofit their own homes to reduce energy consumption.

Regarding your own home, back in February when I attended your neighbourhood session in Council Chambers, I know you were hoping to gather a critical mass of homeowners wanting to shoot for net-zero and thereby achieve economies of scale savings in education, supplies and construction. What I heard is that you’ve now accepted that you’re on the leading edge of that movement, and you will likely be setting the bar on your own initially.  You’ve had some regulatory challenges, and ultimately the financial challenges will dictate a slower and less ambitious approach to the renovation.

We tried to come up with some ways that the District of Maple Ridge might be able to help. As we discussed, the primary beneficiaries of energy retrofits in the short to medium term are homeowners through reduced energy costs. Secondarily, BC Hydro and Fortis also benefit, by delaying the provision of additional capacity. So the provision of financial incentives would logically come through the utility companies, and they, along with Natural Resources Canada/Livesmart BC currently offer programs to support different elements of what you want to do with your home. You make an excellent point in that the home needs to be viewed as a whole system in order to optimize energy efficiency, and none of the programs do that.

Where is the District of Maple Ridge positioned in the equation?  The Province required the District to embed a GHG reduction policy and targets in the OCP, so helping homeowners reduce energy consumption will help reduce emissions and therefore assist in reaching the targets. Is a District-sponsored incentive program for home energy improvements the best place to invest the property tax dollars we collect from the community?  The results of a cost-benefit analysis would likely suggest District resources be allocated to projects or policy work that would have a significantly larger impact. In fact, Council’s priority to create a job incentives program has the potential to reduce commuting and associated GHGs, and has social benefits as well. It also has the added benefit of growing and diversifying the tax base, which is also a Council priority, given that it has been tough economic times for so many citizens.

You offered the examples of Nelson and New Westminster as communities who are offering financial incentives to homeowners, and as I noted, they have their own electrical utility, along with others in the West Kootenays and possibly elsewhere, and therefore also benefit directly, whereas municipalities such as Maple Ridge are supplied by BC Hydro. The District stands to gain no financial payback in the short to medium term. This disparity results in a vastly different cost-benefit equation.

If the District was to fund home energy retrofits, it means taxing all homeowners and then giving that money to those who can afford to renovate, albeit for the laudable purpose of conserving energy. This would be a tax policy decision for Council to make, during a time in which they have to balance off the competing priorities of job incentives versus keeping taxes as low as possible.

There are other programs through BC Hydro, Fortis and Livesmart BC that offer incentives and loans directly to homeowners, but as you mentioned, the net-zero goal is an expensive one, and the programs are likely structured to address the “low hanging fruit” like new energy-efficient furnaces, insulation, and weather stripping.

You also mentioned another shortcoming with the loan program, and that is the loan follows the person rather than the home, and expecting someone to live in their home for decades to pay off an energy retrofit is something that isn’t appealing to many. Your comment resurrected an idea I had looked into several years ago – could the District upfront the energy retrofit money and then attached it to the property tax bill? That way, the person in the home who would be benefiting from the energy bill savings could be paying off the cost of the energy retrofit over time, and the renovating homeowner could be free to move and not have the full cost burden of the retrofit.

We will look for opportunities to support the existing grant programs through our communication channels. If the District can obtain grant funding to support these efforts, we can do more. As you’re aware, BC Hydro’s implementation offer only covers 75% funding.  We may be able to look for funding to cover the other 25%.

We discussed at length your suggestion of hiring a company such as the one used by New Westminster to market a community energy retrofit program and assist citizens in obtaining the services, filling out the applications, and guiding them through the process. If we could obtain grant funding, it sounds like a win-win on the surface, with little required of the District. However, with the District’s sponsorship of the program, we have to apply due diligence to ensure our citizens are not putting blind trust in third party contractors just because the District’s stamp is on it. I don’t think this is a risk that the citizens of Maple Ridge as a whole should be taking on. Our homes are, for most of us, the most valuable physical asset we will ever own, so this is an area where we have to tread very carefully. You mentioned that practically every other organization you talked to who, had gone down this path of dealing with individual homeowners in the past, have abandoned that approach.

What you’re trying to achieve makes sense from an environmental perspective, particularly when viewed from a community-wide perspective.  But when viewed in light of the financial realities of taxpayers, we can only do so much.  As you’re aware, along with trying to reduce taxes as much as possible, Council has chosen to devote some of those hard-earned dollars to attract employment.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the District can assist you, your neighbourhood, and net-zero challengers  in accessing grant funding, promoting your program, providing meeting space, offering District staff time that would be normally available to homeowners wishing to build/retrofit homes, and some additional staff time to support a homeowner-driven energy conservation program. And I’m always here if you need to bounce around any ideas. Our conversations invariably give me a few ideas of my own.

Thanks so much,

PS: Maple Ridge did apply for funding under the Sustainable Communities Program and I take some pride in having influenced the application. Staff kept me up to date and on Jan. 8th, 2014:

In follow-up to our ongoing conversation and specifically our application to BC Hydro for funding to support a community energy conservation program and home retrofit awareness campaign, I wanted to provide you with an update. Just before Christmas, BC Hydro laid off 200 staff, including Paul Bouman. They completely dismantled the Sustainable Communities group except for one employee, who is now tasked with evaluating all the grant applications (among other things, I’m sure). I have been told a decision will be made by the end of February.

I hope you had a wonderful Christmas season, and I hope the new year is very good to you and your family,

This is the way grants and incentives go. Ask an Energy Advisor, the people who test your house before and after you insulate it and help you apply for a grant, and they will tell you they change every year, making it difficult to build an industry or engage consumers. When viewed as an economic stimulus tool, it makes sense that the grants come and go with the ebb and flow of the economy, but they are also important tools to move away from fossil fuels and build permanent local industries.

If you’ve read this whole post, you’ll understand why it seems to me that governments and utilities, even armed with all the facts, seem to be running in the wrong direction.

With this transit plebiscite, the public has a chance to take direct action and tell them exactly what to do with our money.

If you haven’t voted, I hope you will vote yes with me. It’s important. Thank you!

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James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

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