Congressional earmarks are back, and these local projects are benefiting

Congressional earmarks are back, and these local projects are benefiting

When Nick Lopez thinks about the future of the Petaluma Health Center, his mind invariably wanders into the past.

Lopez, the director of advancement for the center, which serves nearly 40,000 patients across Sonoma and Marin counties, said medical providers have lost power in recent years during proactive PG&E grid shutdowns. So when an opportunity to seek federal funding for solar panels and battery backups, there was little hesitation on the part of Lopez and his fellow officials at Petaluma Health Center.

The result, which Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, touted during a tour of the facility last week, is a $1.6 million federal grant to construct solar carports at the center’s Petaluma campus, saving the nonprofit provider as much as $75,000 per month on utility bills and bolstering the center’s ability to serve residents even during disasters.

“For us, the solar panel project really is a way to future-proof our care,” Lopez said. “When there are shut-offs, (this project) makes sure we can keep serving the community.”

It also stands to provide one-third of electricity needs at the Petaluma campus while eliminating 450 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, according to documents associated with the project.

For Lopez, the move fits with a district that already leverages a mobile unit to reach patients who can’t make it to one of the center’s 10 physical locations.

“It’s complementary. Whether the barrier is a power shutoff or transportation to one of our health centers, we’re creating ways to be able to continue serving our patients,” Lopez said.

The intersection of community-centered healthcare, disaster resiliency and climate-focused development pushed Huffman to prioritize funding for the health center in what was the first opportunity for Congressional earmarks in a decade.

The long-vilified appropriations process, outlawed for the past 10 years, returned in force this year with extra safeguards, and Huffman cheered the return, and his ability to shape change on the home front as part of the $1.5 trillion federal spending bill signed earlier this month.

Huffman spent much of last week championing the $11.5 million in community project funding he helped secure throughout his district – from a health clinic in Humboldt County to meal delivery programming via the Ceres Community Project in Sebastopol. Other earmarks include funding for the Marine Mammal Center and the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

“As an elected representative, I hear about community needs, and I’m closer to the community than bureaucrats in Washington that would otherwise make these funding decisions,” Huffman said.

During his Petaluma tour March 21, Huffman was impressed by the health center’s “cutting-edge equipment” and “beautiful examination rooms,” which he said were justifiably on par with the dignity and high standard of care in more affluent communities.

“I was really excited to be able to do something like this that significantly boosts their bottom line, and also helps them be part of our clean energy goals,” Huffman said.

Tiffany Jimenez, the Petaluma Health Care Center’s chief operating officer, worked closely with Huffman’s office to secure the funding. In a statement, Jimenez called the project a critical effort to protect access to care.

“This solar panel project is a proactive and important step in protecting our ability to provide care during natural disasters or power outages that disrupt our access to electricity, while simultaneously decreasing our carbon footprint,” Jimenez said. “It’s a promise of health for our patients, and it’s a promise of health for our environment.”

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

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