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Thursday, December 24,2009

2009 Boulder County People of the Year: Team ClimateSmart

We honor Alice Madden, Will Toor, Ann Livingston and Susie Strife

By Pamela White

It started with a man named Cisco DeVries. As chief of staff to the mayor of Berkeley, Calif., DeVries was looking for a way to enable more people to update their homes with renewable energy and save money on their utility bills. He came up with an idea: finance upgrades through the city and attach the debt to the property taxes of participating homeowners.

It was a win-win-win idea, enabling more homeowners to take advantage of tax credits for renewableenergy improvements, thus lowering their utility bills and reducing the community’s carbon footprint. The idea was so solid and so simple and so smart that even as Berkeley set about putting together a pilot program, news began to spread.

It was then — back in November 2007 — that several urgent e-mails arrived in County Commissioner Will Toor’s inbox.

“A bunch of people said, ‘Oh, my gosh, what a great idea!’” Toor followed the links, read about DeVries’ idea and agreed. “From that day forward, it became my mission.”

Toor’s mission was a successful one. By the end of 2008, Boulder County voters had passed Ballot Issue 1A, authorizing the county to issue $40 million in bonds to loan money to homeowners for energy-efficiency and renewable-energy improvements to their homes, and the ClimateSmart Loan Program was born, placing Boulder County at the forefront of a new national movement.

But that’s when the real work began. Over the course of 2009, the county had to build the ClimateSmart Loan Program from the ground up, reaching out to homeowners and contractors, creating applications, websites and workshops, dealing with legal nuances and a skittish bond market. The result of that hard work was an undisputed financial boon to Boulder County’s economy, just when the county needed it most.

Though many people played a role in establishing the ClimateSmart Loan Program, there are four Boulder County residents without whom the program would not exist — Alice Madden, Will Toor, Ann Livingston and Susie Strife. For their vision and effort, Boulder Weekly names them Boulder County’s People of the Year for 2009.

Within a week of learning about Berkeley’s proposed pilot program, Toor took the idea to the other county commissioners — Ben Pearlman and Cindy Domenico. They both supported the idea, so a working group was formed to discuss how to turn the idea into reality. Almost immediately, they realized they would have to change state law before they could move forward.

In January 2008, they turned to State Rep. Alice Madden, D-Boulder. Madden says she became an enthusiastic supporter of the concept as soon as Toor had finished explaining it to her. Madden introduced House Bill 1350 late in the legislative session.

“When Will came to me, I talked to the governor about it,” Madden says. “[Gov. Ritter] was definitely supportive from the beginning. He has a real focus on equity, and this was an equity bill. If you’re going to put renewable energy on your house and you’re going to get rebates but you still have to come up with $50,000, that certainly limits who can do that. This way it really broadens who can think about making these investments.”

With the governor’s support, Madden carried the bill successfully through the House with little meaningful opposition.

“Some people are going to be against some things because it’s kind of like a sport to them; they really don’t care about the outcome,” she says. “But my recollection is that this was not a really heavy lift because it made sense. … It doesn’t matter if you believe in climate change. Lowering your utility bill is a good thing.”

In August 2008, Toor and other county officials referred the issue to voters as Ballot Issue 1A on that November’s ballot, asking permission to sell up to $40 million in bonds and to loan that money to homeowners for energy-efficiency and renewable-energy upgrades to their homes.

“We had an outpouring of community support when we put it on the ballot,” Toor says.

Young people handed out leaflets at farmers markets.

Local climate scientists threw their weight behind the concept. Homeowners expressed their eagerness to get started.

Voters approved the ballot issue by a significant margin with just over 63 percent voting in favor of it.

“While it is a Boulder County program, I believe the community as a whole should have a sense of ownership of the program,” Toor says.

Within a year of Toor’s reading about Berkeley’s pilot program, Boulder County had surpassed Berkeley, becoming the first government to enact a property assessed clean energy (PACE) program on such a broad scale.

By approving Ballot Issue 1A, voters left county officials with a problem that can be summarized in two words: Now what? County staff had voter permission to sell bonds and loan the money to homeowners. What they didn’t have was an operational program — or a clear and proven blueprint for creating one.

What followed were long days and late nights as county staff worked to create a program that could live up to the original vision — a task county staff found both daunting and inspiring.

Toor says the groundbreaking nature of the ClimateSmart Loan Program had some county staffers looking back to the days when Boulder became the first city in the country to tax itself to protect and preserve open space, creating a model program that many local governments have since followed.

“People thought this was such a good idea that if we could demonstrate that this works, it would be good not only for our people, but for people across the country,” Toor says.

For Ann Livingston, the county’s sustainability coordinator, and Susie Strife, sustainability outreach and education coordinator, walking on terra incognita was part of the excitement. Both enjoyed knowing that they were pioneering something unique and cutting-edge, even if that meant months of collaborative meetings and lots of 80-hour workweeks.

“The staff was willing to put the rubber to the road and burn the midnight oil,” Livingston says.

Livingston and Strife say people joked with them, asking them whether they were sleeping in the office because they stayed so late and came in so early.

At the time, Strife was still in graduate school and was serving an internship with the county. She arrived her first day on the job to find that sheŽd already received more than 70 e-mails from people eager to learn about the new program.

“It was the perfect start to my first real job,” she says. The county had to develop the infrastructure for the program, as well as create policies, such as deciding how loan money could be spent, how to manage the application process and how to work with contractors. In the end, it was decided that the loans could be used to finance about 40 different types of energy-efficiency and renewable-energy improvements. Homeowners and contractors alike were required to attend workshops.

By spring, with the rudiments in place, the county launched the first wave of loans, with about 1,700 people attending the necessary workshops.

But despite intense planning and troubleshooting, getting the program off the ground came with its share of what Toor calls “hiccups.”

“The first round was very challenging,” Livingston says. “No one had run a program like this before.”

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