Garfield County holding off on initiative to fund energy projects

John Colson
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Garfield County’s elected leaders are not quite ready to take a pioneering role in the use of the county’s bonding authority to set up a fund for energy efficiency upgrades to homes and businesses.

Instead, according to assistant county attorney Carolyn Dahlgren, the Board of County Commissioners wants to monitor the performance of a pilot program in Boulder County, rather than rush to put together a ballot question for November asking voters to authorize the idea.

“The Board of County Commissioners essentially say, let Boulder finish being the guinea pig,” said Dahlgren at a presentation before the Garfield County New Energy Communities Initiative, held Wednesday at the county administration building.

Ann Livingston, sustainability coordinator for Boulder County, was at the NECI meeting to describe the experience of her county, which last year formed a countywide improvements district for the financing of renewable-energy and energy-efficiency upgrades to homes and businesses.

The initiative was made possible by a state law passed in 2008, permitting local governments to set up such districts. That law, HB 1350, was in turn modeled after a similar concept that originated in Berkeley, Calif.

Private property owners within Boulder County’s new district may borrow from $40 million in bond proceeds, to pay for part of the costs of energy -efficiency and renewable-energy improvements to their property, and pay back the loans over a period of up to 20 years. The payments are added to their property tax bills.

The enabling legislation and ordinances identify it as an “opt-in” program, meaning that property owners who do not borrow from the loan fund do not pay any additional taxes as a result of the program.

Dahlgren said she and other county officials have been talking with prospective bond counsel about the idea, and noted that the bond market is not exactly robust in the current national and international economic slump.

Plus, she said, potential buyers of the bonds are typically cautious about new, relatively untried programs.

“This is a new fish in the sea,” Dahlgren said. “Nobody knows how they [the bonds to fund the loans] are going to sell.”

She and County Manager Ed Green said the county commissioners indicated an interest in conducting a “needs survey” of county residents, to determine what kind of interest there is in the idea and what specific improvements people might like to make to their properties. This, she said, would lead to a better understanding of “the overall loan amount” that the county might ultimately be looking at.

Dahlgren also said that Garfield County is not likely to have much interest in putting up general fund revenues to help get the program off the ground, as Boulder County did.

Livingston said the Boulder County Commissioners, whom have identified sustainability as one of their top three governmental priorities, agreed to put up $400,000 in public funds as a way to help allay some of the costs associated with both the issuance of the bonds and the repayment schedule of the bonds. The idea, she said, was to reduce the costs to the users of the fund.

According to Dahlgren, Garfield County commissioners were not opposed to the concept, and might be open to asking voters to weigh in on the idea in 2010.