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National Town Hall Plenary Session Opening Detroit, MI

Carol M. Browner, Administrator Environmental Protection Agency
                 Remarks Prepared for Delivery
           National Town Hall Plenary Session Opening
                          Detroit, MI
May 3, 1999
     Good afternoon. I hope all of you enjoyed this morning's sessions and that you find this panel discussion that we're about to open on "Healthy Communities, Healthy Economies," a useful one.

     I'd like to thank the National Town Meeting host committee, as well as all the other business and community leaders who helped pull this event together.

      And I would like to particularly thank Mayor Archer for the warm welcome he and his city have extended to all of us.

     Mayor Archer has been one of our nation's leaders in the livability movement thanks to his work in revitalizing this great city.  You know, Detroit was founded in 1701 -- so it already has nearly 300 years of history behind it. And thanks to Mayor Archer, I believe Detroit will thrive in the century to come.

     I'd also like to welcome all of you who are joining us today either over the Internet or via satellite. It's an amazing time we live in, isn't it? Here we are using all these modern communication devices in service of an old-fashioned idea -- the Town Hall Meeting.

     You know, when we think of Town Hall meetings I bet a lot of us think of New England, which is still famous for this bottom-up style of government. A friend of mine from Massachusetts just swears by town meetings. He'd even go to meetings in towns he didn't live because they were so much fun to watch. He told me a story about one he attended and I wanted to share it with you because I think it shows what we're trying to do here today.

     The citizens of the town -- I forget the exact name -- were meeting to approve the budget for the next year. The head of the town's road department told the town he needed a new truck.
Well, first the local mechanic got up and said: "Hey! I've seen his truck. It's not in the best of shape. But I can fix it. If he just brings it down to the shop, I'll take care of it and you just have to pay me for the parts."

     Then a local farmer got up and said: "Didn't we just buy him this truck two years ago? I've had my truck for 10 years and it's still running great. It sounds like he just can't take care of our property."

     Well, things just went downhill from there for this poor road chief. Not only did he not get his new truck -- the town approved letting the local mechanic fix the old one -- they also voted to fire him for not taking care of his equipment.

     We're looking for that kind of interaction here today -- except, of course, for the firing part. I think my co-host, Secretary Slater, feels the same way. Right Rodney?

     The citizens of that town saw a local problem, applied a little common sense to it, and then not only solved the problem but saved themselves some money to boot.

     We want to hear from the audience about your common-sense ideas and solutions to the local problems you face -- or have faced -- in preserving and nurturing a high quality of life and economic growth for your communities. As you'll notice, note cards have been provided for you to write down your questions and then Secretary Slater and I will use them to stimulate a discussion between you and our panelists.    

     Across the nation, Americans, working from the bottom up, have been telling their state and local governments that they want their communities to become livable and sustainable.

     Last fall, 240 "green" ballot initiatives were considered in communities across the country. More than 150 of these measures to enhance local livability were adopted, authorizing $7.5 billion in state and local spending.

     These voters sent a simple message, but they made it loud and clear: They want to see older neighborhoods revitalized; they want their waterways and wetlands protected from pollution, and that they want to see farmland and open space preserved.

     These communities were responding, in part, to the astonishing loss of open space that has occurred across the nation. In one 10-year span we lost 4.3 million acres of prime and unique farmland. That's a loss of nearly 50 acres every hour of every day. And once it's gone, we can't get it back.

     This loss of land has environmental consequences. Consider this: A one acre parking lot generates 16 times more polluted runoff than a meadow. This runoff washes toxic chemicals and other pollutants into our waters, lakes and coastal areas, making them unfit for the wildlife that depend on them and unsafe for the families who want to enjoy them.

     But another consequence of spiraling growth has been the loss of that certain sense of community -- a sense of belonging. Community gathering places, like parks, often don't exist. And neighbors become those people we pass in our cars on the way to work.

     In a few minutes we will be introducing our panelists for this session. But I want to take a
moment to thank them. They bring an expertise on building livable communities: From redeveloping brownfields; to spurring sustained and healthy economic growth, and to leading their communities in these directions.

     Let's take a second and give them all a hand.

     The President and the Vice President also understand the problem and have proposed a plan that will take us into the future by rediscovering the joys of our past -- a past when cities and towns exerted a gravity that kept commerce and culture swirling nearby rather than hurtling ever outward.

     As part of the "Livability Agenda" outlined in his State of the Union address, President Clinton announced some new tools to revitalize life within our communities, be they suburbs or urban centers.

     One of these tools is called Better America Bonds, a program in which EPA will take the lead in consultation with other Administration departments and agencies.

     This plan offers a creative way for states and communities to preserve open space, create parks or clean up brownfields. They might also decide to improve water quality by purchasing and preserving wetlands or creating forest buffers to protect streams. Or they can do all those things together. It's very flexible.

     Simply put, the Better America Bonds is about the simplest law you could write to do the greatest amount of good. It's just a quick addition to the tax code.

     With Better America Bonds, states and local governments will be able to issue nearly $10 billion in bonds and pay no interest. And they can have 15 years to pay back the principal. Investors who buy the bonds receive tax credits from the federal government equal to the amount of interest they would have earned.

     Could it be any easier?

     Let me tell you what Better America Bonds is not. It is not micro managing local decisions. Under the Better America Bonds program, the federal government will not add a single square-inch of  land to its inventory. All purchases will be made by state and local governments.

     We will also encourage regional approaches. We would like to see small communities working with large cities, counties working with states, and states working with their neighboring states.

     If you're interested in our Better America Bonds proposal, I would encourage you to visit our website at A section there is devoted to Better America Bonds.

     I would like to take a moment to thank Congressman Earl Blumenauer for his help in trying to move the Better America Bonds proposal through Congress.

     The new millennium is now just 242 days away. Our cities, towns and communities -- some, like Detroit, with centuries of history already behind them -- need help if they are to be vibrant in the century to come.

     The President's livability agenda is giving them the tools they need to get that job done. And someday soon families won't have to burn a quart of gas to get a quart of milk. Parks will sprout on abandoned industrial sites that are now unsafe for children. And stands of trees -- saved from development -- will protect rivers and creeks for the wildlife that need them and the families that want to enjoy them.

     This will be good for the health of our families, the healthy of our environment and the health of our local economies. And it will help restore our sense of community. Out of our shared places -- be it a riverfront park or a suburban greenway -- will come a shared vision.

     But Better America Bonds are just one part of the Administration's "livability" agenda. There are also direly needed transportation investments worth $1.6 billion to help communities reduce congestion, encourage transit and improve air quality.

     And here to talk about that today is Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater.