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VIEWPOINT: Climate challenges require pragmatic solutions, big tent conversations
Guest column by Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken
Sustainability. Climate change. Climate Crisis. The Green New Deal. However you phrase it, protecting and conserving our environment has unfortunately become a polarizing and political topic, no matter which side of the conversation you’re on. There’s a broad set of opinions and variables that need to be considered and as with most government decisions, “the devil is in the details.”
I am not in denial that our climate is changing. I know we must act to preserve what we have in front of us. It’s why the vision statement we have at the city — “Taking care of today for a better tomorrow” — is so important to our team as we deliberate every decision made related to sustainability, public safety, or even the cost of bridges. I realize that while I will not personally feel the effects of each decision made during my leadership, our next generation, including my three kids, will.
If there is one thing the voters of this community can expect based on my five-year mayoral track record, it’s that I am a consensus-building leader that brings pragmatic solutions to challenges, not giving undue attention to loud special interest groups. In government, we call this a “big tent” approach. We’ve used this approach over the past year to bring more diverse perspectives to the table to establish a sustainability framework for the city of Sioux Falls. While some special interest groups have mischaracterized listening to dissenting opinions as discounting their voices, it’s quite the opposite. Whether it’s sustainability, infrastructure, public safety or any other topic, I’ll continue to lead with big tent conversations to make Sioux Falls an even better community for the next generation.
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On March 1, the Environmental Protection Agency released guidance for the Climate Pollution Reduction grants program. Each state was given until March 31, 2023 to submit a Notice of Intent to Participate. South Dakota chose not to opt in, which then defaulted the decision to accept a portion of the state’s allocation to the three largest MSAs, one of them being Sioux Falls.
Saying “yes” to $1 million is not as easy as it sounds. If it was, this decision would have been made weeks ago. By opting into this grant program, Sioux Falls would not simply receive $1 million to invest however we’d like on furthering sustainability efforts. As with many grant programs, these federal dollars also have numerous requirements, and we determined immediately that we needed to collaborate with regional partners to make the best strategic and realistic decision for the city.
Leading up to the deadline of April 28, we met with several regional organizations, communities, and even the EPA to outline if this $1 million regional — not municipal — planning grant is right for the Sioux Falls MSA.
Regional participation is key to making a difference in targeted goals regarding greenhouse gas emissions. This is much larger than just a Sioux Falls effort. None of our regional partners or regional elected leaders were supportive of participating. Everyone has different challenges to consider, like the impact to agriculture, their already existing housing crisis, or even the unexpected regulation costs that come with these sorts of grants.
After countless conversations in a short span of time, we felt the requirements for the federal dollars would ultimately take away the focus from the city’s current and planned sustainability efforts. In that vein, the planning grant is for one-time funds with no guarantee of additional funding. While it’s accurate that $4.6 billion in additional federal money is expected to eventually be available for implementation grants across the country, we have no guarantee of what we may receive due to the competitive federal grant process. This would prevent us from being able to adequately plan for ongoing projects and programs. It would tie our hands to fund the goals and targets set within the plan, ultimately sacrificing other core city services we’re committed to — and residents expect.
Although our region is not opting into this federal grant, we have no intention of decreasing or halting our current sustainability efforts. Instead, we will continue to build upon the incredible progress we are already making, including:
Collaboration between the city of Sioux Falls and other local agencies, which has led to more than 3,000 acres enrolled in riparian buffers, which improves water quality in the Big Sioux River Watershed.
Materials Management & Waste
In 2022, more than 10,000 tons of yard waste were made into compost at the Sioux Falls Regional Sanitary Landfill, which is free for residents.
Community Vitality & Sustainable Living
The Sioux Falls Parks and Recreation Department works with the Minnehaha Master Gardeners to support several community garden spaces.
Energy and buildings
About 70 percent of all streetlights in Sioux Falls have been replaced so far with LED bulbs, saving the city nearly $200,000 in energy costs annually.
And Methane gas collected at the landfill is purchased by a local company to use as fuel in their operations, reusing the energy source rather than being released into the atmosphere
Transportation and land Use
The city purchased its first electric fleet vehicle in 2022 to study the cost and benefits of this transportation over a one-year pilot program. Sioux Falls is leading the way in South Dakota to experiment with EVs in our city fleet. We will also expand that work through our current Request for Proposal for the city’s readiness for EVs.
Whether it’s sustainability, infrastructure, public safety or any other topic, I’ll continue to lead in a way that focuses on big tent strategies to make Sioux Falls an even better community. Let's not lean into the divisiveness taking over the national conversations, but rather continue to work together to build a unified community that works together to accomplish incredible things.