THE COST OF CLEAN AIR: The local pollution-fighting agency is in danger of losing funding BY DIANE DIETZ
The Register-Guard – Published: April 16, 2012
Whether a local guardian of Lane County air is a luxury or a necessity is a question Eugene, Springfield and Lane County will answer in their annual budget processes this year.
The 44-year-old Lane Regional Air Protection Agency, which relies on each of those local governments for some of its financial support, is in jeopardy because all the governments are short of cash — in the lingering economic downturn — and may not pay their dues.
Last year, Lane County and Springfield declined to pay their share of the agency’s upkeep. This year, for the first time, Eugene is wavering in its support.
The city’s draft budget has a zero in LRAPA’s column.
“It’s important to have good air quality for health reasons and for quality of life,” said Chelsea Clinton, a volunteer with the Eugene Budget Committee. “(But) there are a lot of things to worry about on the budget this year. I worry about having enough fire trucks and having libraries and animal control.”
LRAPA is one of 165 specialized metropolitan air agencies nationally and the only one in Oregon, according to the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.
Outside of the air agencies’ territories, air pollution laws are administered by state or federal regulators.
Regional air agencies administer the federal Clean Air Act by regulating what comes out of smokestacks and by undertaking other initiatives to clear the air, such as helping people swap out soot-belching wood stoves with newer, cleaner models.
In its four-plus decades, LRAPA has seen the Eugene-Springfield metropolitan area air improve from a haze fed by constantly smoking wigwam burners incinerating wood waste to green-light breathable air that’s acceptable even for asthmatics except for a handful of days each year.
In Oakridge — where inversions still trap wood stove smoke and make the air unsafe for some — the air is getting steadily better thanks to LRAPA’s wood stove swap-out efforts and is on target to meet federal standards by 2014, LRAPA Director Merlyn Hough said.
“LRAPA has been amazingly successful in meeting standards on schedule or ahead of schedule — and staying within those standards,” Hough said. “If we violate those standards, then the (federal) requirements are more burdensome on the community, and especially for any new business wanting to locate here or expand.”
In regions with dirty air, for example, federal law requires businesses to install the best, most expensive pollution control devices, Hough said.
If local governments were to pull out of LRAPA and the agency were to disband, the state Department of Environmental Quality would be required to step in and regulate pollution-emitting industries here, Hough said. Cities would have to enforce their own ordinances regulating backyard burning, something LRAPA does now.
But a lot of what LRAPA does — monitoring and reporting on air quality, responding to complaints of chemical odors and getting grants for projects such as retrofitting school buses to run on clean diesel — is most likely to fall by they wayside.
“The services most wanted by the communities would be the things we wouldn’t be able to do,” Hough said.
DEQ officials can’t predict what services the state could offer in Lane County if LRAPA should disband, DEQ spokeswoman Joan Stevens-Schwenger said. “Everyone is strapped for cash right now.”
Budget nitty gritty
The local LRAPA dues are supposed to be paid proportionally by each city government and the county government at the rate of 97 cents per year per citizen. Oakridge and Cottage Grove are part of the pact and pay at the same per-citizen rate.
The sum of all the local dues amounts to less than one-quarter of the agency’s $2 million annual operating budget, but the local dues are the linchpin that holds the agency together.
The state requires that its $121,000 annual contribution to LRAPA be matched dollar for dollar by local contributions. And the federal Environmental Protection Agency conditions payment of its $250,000 annual base grant to LRAPA on a 40 percent match from local sources and a showing of “maintenance of effort.”
The maintenance of effort means the agency’s budget is steady — and not declining — or if it’s declining, the contributing agencies must be cutting LRAPA funds at the same percentage that they’re cutting other parts of their budgets.
The web of requirements means that for every $1 local governments spend on the agency, the agency brings in $4. The reverse is true, too.
“Losing $1 here can be $4 total,” Hough said.
On top of the operating revenue — and separately — LRAPA brings in millions in state and federal special project grants. Many years, the sum of the grants exceeds the total of local government dues.
The agency, for example, has gotten grants to reduce particulate coming from school buses and large trucks. LRAPA in recent years got money for residents whose sole source of heat is woodstoves to buy efficient, cleaner-burning woodstoves — 137 in the metropolitan area and 79 in Oakridge.
“Because we have a really good track record, we get money,” LRAPA spokeswoman Sally Markos said.
In an effort to preserve the agency, LRAPA is urging local governments to reconsider their tentative budget cuts and at least give the air agency enough to preserve its state match in the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1. That would mean a contribution of $55,000 from Eugene, compared with $152,000 in the current year; $40,000 from Lane County, compared with zero in the current year; and, $20,000 from Springfield, compared with zero in the current year.
If the governments don’t have the cash, LRAPA is asking for in-kind contributions such as building space from Springfield or legal services from Lane County — which the agency can use to show the EPA that the agency still has local financial support.
Eugene may reconsider its cut.
“It’s very much still in the discussion,” Clinton said. “All the decisions we have to make are very difficult. I’m not comfortable with any of them, but we do have to make them.”
Stuck in the middle
LRAPA always has operated over the political abyss in Lane County, where it is buffeted alternately by accusations that it’s too tough or too lax on industry — depending on who’s in power at each of the three main constituent governments.
Where one side sees a local air agency as valuable because it can be more responsive to business, the other side sees a local air agency as more easily manipulated by business.
“I am a cockeyed optimist,” said Lisa Arkin, executive director of Beyond Toxics, a nonprofit anti-pollution group. “I believe in my heart that a local agency will do a better job protecting the community. I would like to see more evidence that LRAPA is willing to take the steps to do so.”
Arkin said Beyond Toxics has a “love-hate” relationship with LRAPA and she can’t say now whether she would testify in favor of preserving the agency. The Beyond Toxics board would have to vote on the matter.
Hough sought support for LRAPA from the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce in mid-February, but that agency hasn’t decided, either, President Dave Hauser said.
“We’re in a reset here in terms of municipal government at all levels. The county and the cities are looking at business as usual and saying is there a different way to do this?” he said.
To Lane County residents, LRAPA is a little like the fire department, or some other government function they aren’t in contact with every day.
“It’s hard to identify exactly what that means, to have our own agency or not, to the average citizen,” Clinton said.
Citizens don’t know exactly what the agency does until the gravel pit down the road kicks up daily clouds of dust or a chemical smell wafts in their bedroom window or their neighbor burns noxious smelling trash. LRAPA responds to most of 800 such complaints a year.