"So," I said to Racine Mayor Gary Becker, "when did you become Al Gore?"
"Not Al Gore," he replied. "I blame this on Mayor Richard Daley."
To understand our exchange, go back a week ago, when the City Council, at Becker's urging, piled the best of intentions on a foundation of mostly taxpayer dollars to construct a solar array in the City Hall Annex parking lot. At a cost, if anyone's counting, of $341,934.
Did I mention: mostly taxpayer dollars?
Money collected but ... ahem ... otherwise not really needed, is how the storyline goes. See, $135,000 had been allocated to repave the 50-space parking lot. But "nobody parks there," the mayor said, since there's another lot nearby. And bids on an unrelated City Hall remodeling project came in $71,928 less than budgeted -- so (Of course!) -- that money also was burning a hole in the city's pocket, in a manner of speaking. We all should have such problems.
Nobody suggested giving it back to the taxpayers. Instead, Public Works director Rick Jones and Becker came up with the idea (each credits the other) of a 37-kilowatt solar-powered electrical generating system. Big solar panels mounted on poles, filling the parking lot. How California can you get?
There's no sex appeal in parking lot repaving, or City Hall remodeling, but mention the word "solar" and money falls from the sky: We Energies is giving the city a $99,975 grant for the project. And the Wisconsin Focus on Energy is giving another $35,000. Voila!
As a taxpayer, it's easy to be cynical about this project. Until you talk to Becker. His enthusiasm and clear-headed explanation turned my head around. I'm still uneasy about how the $200,000 pile of city money was accumulated, but the project itself actually may make sense, in a Mayor Moonbeam sort of way.
"Am I going to sit here and tell you this is the greatest investment the city has ever made?" Becker asks rhetorically. "No. But strictly from a dollars and cents perspective, it's close." In other words, given the price of electricity, it will pay for itself in about 15 years, providing about 10 per cent of the annex's electrical needs. "It'll break even at current energy prices, although nobody in his right mind would expect those to stay the same. With energy prices rising, buildings are the low-hanging fruit."
But for Becker, this solar project is not a dollars and cents issue. "I'm a believer in leading by example," he says. "Climate change is real out there. And buildings, not cars, are the biggest producers of CO2. Absolutely."
The mayor says he became an environmentalist after meeting Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (Daley fils, not Daley pere: Richard M, the current mayor, not his father, Richard J.). They met at Becker's first meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Now Becker chairs the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. And the Mayor's Climate Control Agreement, which more than 700 mayors have signed. "We can do Kyoto," he says.
Kyoto? The 1997 U.N. agreement that 173 countries and the European Union have signed to reduce greenhouse gases to at or below 1990 levels? The so-called 2005 Kyoto Protocol which the U.S. refuses to sign?
Yes, that one. "We're practically there already," Becker says. "Racine is probably well below the 1990's."
But he's just getting warmed up. "I'm working on an Urban Environmental Agenda," he says, differentiating between the kind of environmental activities that city dwellers might need and appreciate and the ones you more often hear about. "Saving the Spotted Owl doesn't cut it in the 'hood," he says. Rather, he means lead paint abatement, rivers clean enough for fishermen who eat their catch, recreation, "green" jobs.
The matron in Wind Point has different concerns than the man on the street wanting a job, to put it delicately.
"Is this project going to save the planet? No," Becker asks, and answers. "But reforestation, lake and river cleanup, they're all pieces of the puzzle. There's no silver bullet.
"As we try to reposition and recreate the city, these are the kinds of things that show that this is a forward-thinking community.
"Next year, I'm going to put windmills on City Hall."
Yes, I knew he was kidding about that. Right? "Daley Center has a couple of wind turbines," he said. A little too wistfully, I thought.