by Julia McMurry, Climate Intern
A community-based workgroup released its final recommendations in October 2020 in a publicly-available report detailing how to integrate climate considerations into County budgets. The Climate Change Budgeting Process Workgroup comprised 15 volunteer members with backgrounds ranging from public administration and policy to finance and environmental science. Since August 2020, they have been working with County staff to design a climate budgeting framework for Montgomery County.
The workgroup did not assess budget items line-by-line but instead recommended structures and processes the County can use to vet funding proposals going forward. These recommendations would apply not only to climate-related items but to all aspects of the County’s multi-billion dollar capital and operating budgets. Planning for the County’s fiscal year 2022 budget began on July 1, 2020, and proposed recommendations are already informing that process. For example, all departments are encouraged to include FY22 budget requests that advance their climate-related initiatives and are required to identify Climate Ambassadors to advance that work.
County Executive Marc Elrich supported the climate budgeting concept prior to taking office and expressed renewed commitment this past February, during a public meeting about the County’s Climate Action Plan (CAP). The County has pledged to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. Moving forward with climate budgeting while County staff finalize the draft climate plan reflects Elrich’s ethos of “acting while we plan,” according to Adriana Hochberg, Assistant CAO and Climate Change Coordinator.
Workgroup members were dedicated to creating realistic recommendations, but also recognized the need to act swiftly. “There’s a real sense of urgency around this [process],” said workgroup Community Chair, Pamela Winston.
Climate budgeting is a relatively new concept, so there is no default template for this work. Early workgroup conversations focused on defining the scope of the task ahead. One sticking point was whether to focus on the substance of budget items or the method of developing them. “The focus of this group was not to directly review budget proposals and to [decide if]…they pass or fail a given climate test,” said Hochberg. Instead, workgroup members had to create flexible tools and procedures that can be applied across multiple departments and budget years.
Ultimately “the process found its way,” said Winston, who added that meetings were “very productive.” Volunteer members split into subgroups dedicated to short- and longer-term actions, coming together in four larger meetings with climate planning staff and members of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
Although each recommendation represents thoughtful planning, many are likely to change over time through a process of trial and error. Hochberg explained the fiscal year 2022 budget gives climate planning staff a chance to pilot different approaches and see what works. In six months, staff and some workgroup members will reconvene to assess their approach, just in time to start thinking about 2023. “It’s an iterative process,” said Hochberg.
Winston hopes climate budgeting will become more institutionalized as time goes on. In the near-term, she counts it as a victory that Montgomery County is adopting some concrete methods to apply a climate lens to budgeting. Collaborating with County staff laid the groundwork for more work to come. Each volunteer and County employee came to the project with different background knowledge, but all left with a better understanding of climate issues and budgeting. OMB managers will bring newfound environmental awareness to future budget meetings, and County climate staff have a better handle on the budgeting process going forward. Hochberg described work on this project as “very collegial.”
Despite continued budget disruptions due to COVID-19, Winston says climate budgeting is here to stay. “People want this to work.”