New York State wants to give millions of dollars in grants to municipalities that show they are taking steps to address climate change. How are we doing?
The meeting on a Tuesday night at Beacon City Hall had been going on for hours.
The committee members around the table, mostly volunteers, discussed how to increase participation in a composting pilot program that the city has just extended. They talked about rebates and incentives that will soon be available for heat pumps and electric vehicles. Was it too early for publicity?
The group around the table goes by two names. Most Beacon residents know it as the Conservation Advisory Committee, which meets once a month and is tasked with advising the City Council on conservation, preservation and the environment.
But the committee is also the city’s Climate Smart Task Force, part of a statewide initiative started in 2009 to help local governments take action against the effects of global warming. More than 350 communities in New York have taken the pledge to become “climate smart,” and 91 have advanced far enough through a list of achievements to be certified with “bronze” status. Only nine have completed the more rigorous goals for silver, including Beacon.
Besides a plaque and community pride, certified Climate Smart communities are first in line for state grants for electric-vehicle chargers, streetscape improvements, wastewater upgrades, new firehouses and food waste collection programs. And the pot is about to get bigger: At least $100 million from the $4.2 billion environmental bond act approved by voters in November will be distributed through the Climate Smart program.
This year may be remembered as a turning point for climate legislation. Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act, each of which are designed to, among other things, fund green research and infrastructure, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make renewable energy cheaper. At the state level, Gov. Kathy Hochul enacted a law in September stating that by 2035, all passenger-sized cars and trucks sold in New York will be emissions-free. And this week, the state approved its final Scoping Plan: a 433-page document that lays out how the state will achieve its goals of getting 70 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030, and reaching zero-emissions electricity by 2040 and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
The vision laid out in these laws is enticing: a greenhouse-gas-free society that supplies cheaper, cleaner, dependable renewable energy to healthier communities across the country, as well as jobs and equitable access to the opportunities and benefits being created. The laws also supply funding and incentives, while the scoping plan outlines how New York can make the visions a reality.
The Climate Smart program wasn’t created with this far-reaching legislation in mind. But the communities that have been taking part find themselves in position to build on their newfound expertise. Those that haven’t — notably, Putnam County — may soon find themselves falling behind.
“We’re in the 19th century and failing,” Nancy Montgomery, who represents Philipstown on the Putnam County Legislature, said of the county’s efforts. “Might as well just start burning coal in the county buildings.”
From pledges to action
There wasn’t much to the Climate Smart program when it was created in 2009. The newly formed state Office of Climate Change was looking for a way to get municipalities involved.
“We understood that local governments would be important partners, in terms of mitigating greenhouse gasses,” said Mark Lowery, assistant director of the agency. “We also knew that local governments are often the first responders in terms of responding to climate hazards, and that they had an intense interest in adaptation and resilience.”
The state rolled out a 10-point pledge that was similar to a proclamation a town might adopt to honor a beloved football coach: big on feelings, light on particulars. “There’s not a lot of specifics,” concedes Lowery.
But a funny thing happened when communities took the pledge: Many used it as inspiration to inventory their greenhouse gas emissions, develop climate action plans and apply for funding for mitigation projects.
Other communities turned to the state for help. In response, New York developed a list of about 100 goals in 12 categories. Completing each goal earned points, from conducting an energy audit of government buildings (8 to 16 points) to creating riparian buffers (2 to 6 points) to installing wind turbines (9 to 20 points.)
“It’s sort of a menu that they can look at and say, ‘What fits our circumstances, our capacity, the things that we think threaten us and the things that are in the interest of our community?’ ” explained Lowery. “We’ve tried to make the program suitable for use by any community, ranging from villages with fewer than 300 people up to a certain city that has more than 8 million.”
Racking up 120 points earns bronze certification, the level that Philipstown (2021) and Dutchess County (2019) and 79 other communities are at. Three hundred points is needed for silver, which Beacon earned in 2020.
Putnam County (2019), Nelsonville (2018), Peekskill (2009), Newburgh (2018) and Putnam Valley (2020) are among the 269 communities that have joined the program but not yet achieved bronze.
Dazzle Ekblad, the statewide coordinator of the Climate Smart program, said that New York is developing a gold certification that will be aligned with goals in the newly released scoping plan.
Along with access to state money, certification is a statement of values, which Ekblad said can be a selling point to attracting green industries. There are bragging rights as well, which Ekblad suggested is a bigger deal than you might think.
“It’s about leadership recognition and being part of that elite group where communities across the state who are asking questions are now going to you and saying, ‘You’re an example. How are you doing this? Can we learn from you?’ ”
Faye Leone, who became Beacon’s Climate Smart Coordinator last year, confirmed that as one of the few silver-level coordinators, she fields many calls from other municipalities. Recently, a coordinator who was having trouble convincing the police department to switch to electric vehicles (earning 2 to 10 points) called for advice. Leone put their police department in touch with Beacon’s, which is in the process of changing its fleet to electric cars, so that the Beacon police officers could assuage their concerns.
But bronze and silver also get you something else more important: money.
“We wouldn’t have even been considered for the EV charger grant if we hadn’t put in all that work,” said Martha Upton, who recently took over for Krystal Ford as the Climate Smart coordinator in Philipstown. Last year, Philipstown received $8,000 to help install a dual-port charger in front of Town Hall. Other grants have been used to create a pilot food-scrap recycling program, which was just extended, and a Climate Fund that has helped residents pay for green HVAC upgrades and provided money for pollinator gardens at Town Hall and the Recreation Center.
In Beacon, grants helped pay for EV chargers in three locations, with more on the way. The city’s new central firehouse near City Hall will have at least one EV charger and is being designed to be powered by geothermal heating and — if future grants come through — solar panels. Leone said the task force hopes to “electrify as much as we can and make the source of that electricity 100 percent renewable power.”
Eleanor Peck, who was Beacon’s first Climate Smart coordinator when it joined the program in 2019, and still serves on the committee, said the city is “leading the charge across the state.” She said Beacon had a head start because of the city’s long history of environmental activism and the extensive brownfield cleanups that had taken place at Long Dock (10 points).
Peck said that when then-Mayor Randy Casale hired her, he pointed to the list of Climate Smart goals and noted that the city was already doing a lot of them: LED traffic lights (4 points), LED street lights (10 points), the solar energy array at Denning’s Point (9 points), a farmers market (3 points) and accessible public transit via the free Loop bus (5 points), to name a few.
One of her first tasks was to compile an updated greenhouse-gas inventory (16 points), which found that the city’s emissions had fallen 25 percent in less than 10 years.
“I used to feel such dread when thinking about climate change,” said Peck. But that’s changed after “getting so involved on a local level, and seeing that we’re making a difference here.”
In Philipstown, Upton added: “It’s important for all of us to be on our toes right now and pay attention to the opportunities.” She said she’s in constant contact with Leone and Peck, brainstorming projects and researching grants.
Upton said she would like to have a similar relationship with the Climate Smart coordinator for Putnam County “and see how we can work together to get more done. These issues are county-wide issues, and we need to be working together.”
‘We’re missing out’
In 2019, the Putnam County Legislature adopted the state pledge and unanimously resolved to become a Climate Smart Community. They hired a coordinator (10 points) and set up a webpage (3 points).
It’s difficult to discern if anything happened after that.
Montgomery, who had urged the Legislature and County Executive MaryEllen Odell to get more involved, often asked in meetings and memos for updates, such as progress reports or any other evidence that the committee existed.
She was told in 2021 that the committee met but did not take minutes. “I do hope you consider taking minutes at these important meetings,” Montgomery responded in a memo to Odell, who will leave office on Dec. 31 because of term limits. “Climate Smart Task Force minutes are required as part of the program and will enable the county to obtain points toward certification; without them the county cannot achieve certification.”
A month earlier, she told Odell that the state had recently announced a round of $10 million in Climate Smart funding. “I hope that we do not let another year go by without competing for some of this funding,” she wrote.
In the summer of 2021, the Climate Smart coordinator, Lauri Taylor, resigned. At the Aug. 25 meeting of the Physical Services Committee that year, legislators were told that Vinny Tamagna, a former legislator who is now the county transportation manager, would take over. He also would be in charge of the Soil and Water Conservation District.
This was news to Montgomery. “The legislature never approved any appointment or confirmed any appointment to the Climate Smart coordinator position,” she said. “So, as far as I know, as far as anything that’s come before my desk, there’s no Climate Smart coordinator for Putnam County. They have not taken on any initiatives.”
Tamagna did not respond to several requests for comment. It’s not clear who serves on the Climate Smart task force.
“We’re missing out on funding,” said Montgomery. “We’re missing out on making a difference on climate change and working on what we’re eventually going to be mandated to do.”
A few miles to the north, Montgomery’s frustrations are shared by Yvette Valdés Smith, the minority leader in the Dutchess County Legislature, whose district includes part of Beacon. Valdés Smith put in a request during recent negotiations over the county’s 2023 budget to hire a coordinator to jump-start the Climate Smart program and oversee other climate initiatives.
She was told that there was no money for it, only to see the Legislature at the last minute add $25 million in spending on Dutchess County Stadium.
“You can’t provide funding for a Climate Smart coordinator, and yet, you’re going to put taxpayer dollars into the stadium for a luxury clubhouse?” she said. “It’s just a tough pill to swallow.”
Valdés Smith said that Dutchess is being left behind while surrounding counties and municipalities are being awarded grants. “There’s so many programs that we’re just not even beginning to tackle because there is nobody in that position,” she said.
Dutchess, at least, achieved bronze status before the pandemic stalled progress. In Putnam, Montgomery’s efforts to take that first step have been unsuccessful.
“Every time we make an approval for a new vehicle, I ask, ‘Did we look into electric vehicles?’ ” she said. “We have the perfect campus [in Carmel] for installing electric-charging stations, and we don’t have any,” a deficiency that will prove problematic as the state phases out gas-powered cars over the next 12 years. “We’re just shooting ourselves in the foot,” she said.
Despite the challenges, Montgomery is optimistic for the new year, when Kevin Byrne will become the county executive after running unopposed for the position. She said that she suspects Byrne, a state legislator whose district includes much of Putnam, will be keenly aware of the state funding the county has been missing out on, and the importance of aligning the county’s goals with the state’s.
“We’ve been at a standstill for four years,” she said. “Nothing has happened. So hopefully, with this new regime, we can start getting some things done to bring us into the 21st century.”
Byrne did not respond to several requests for comment. In the meantime, a page on the Putnam County website devoted to climate change has disappeared, apparently as part of a redesign. But an archived copy from October — more than a year after Tamagna took over — still listed Lauri Taylor as coordinator.