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City sustainability team’s solutions recycle, reuse and renew

Greener on the other side



When Carrie McCausland became the city's first sustainability coordinator in 2009, the municipal government recycled only paper in its largest buildings. She expanded that to include cans and bottles, and spread the recycling effort to most city buildings and public bins.

She also helped develop a sustainability plan, and oversaw a $3.7 million federal energy efficiency and conservation grant. The grant, from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, replaced boilers and caulked windows in several city buildings, which saved $154,000 a year in utility bills ("We can do it!" News, Oct. 20, 2011).

She also hosted "green" bag lunch-n-learn meetings, issued a green e-newsletter, conducted a Green Fair, and helped launch the energy-efficient LED streetlight program.

But a five-page list of sustainability accomplishments ends abruptly in January this year when McCausland and a co-worker left, victims of Mayor Steve Bach's decision not to continue the program after a three-year state grant that funded the office ran out.

Now, sustainability has been added as just one more thing for other department leaders to think about. And that doesn't work, says Nick Kittle, former city administrative services and innovation director who worked closely with McCausland on projects but left the city last month to become a consultant.

"I think you need a person whose job it is to move that forward," Kittle says. "I don't think it was ever something fully supported by management. The city has not institutionalized sustainability. If the mayor came out and said, 'These are goals for our community,' it makes a huge difference in the way people react to it."

Instead, the mayor appointed a "Sustainability Solutions Team" to keep track of how things are going. Given that the team was nearly seven months late producing its first report, and then contradicted one of the report's key findings when presenting that report to City Council last month, the results are less than encouraging.

Lack of support

McCausland worked in the city's communications office before moving to the Office of Innovation and Sustainability. She helped jump-start programs, including recycling efforts, as a member of an interdepartmental group of volunteers.

After her move, she re-engineered the city's hauler contract to include single-stream recycling for the first time, which, as she says via e-mail, "opened the door to revising our custodial contracts to include recycling services." Before that, workers were hauling recyclables to bins themselves.

Batteries are recycled via drop points only at the City Administration Building, she says, another opportunity for expansion. And the city's contract includes free recycling of printer cartridges, but it hadn't been started when she left at the end of 2012.

Nor had two other of McCausland's ideas. She redid the hauler contract to include composting of food and yard waste from the city's golf courses, airport and greenhouses, and she worked on a pilot project to recycle trash from bus stops.

Previous efforts

Kittle says the ARRA grant funded audits of energy usage in city buildings, which led to retrofitting six facilities to enhance efficiency, including the caulking and boiler projects. The audits actually were updates of those done in 2001 that "nobody remembers," Kittle says. Kittle, McCausland and their supporters also instigated the LED pilot program.

All those efforts developed without much management support, Kittle says. "The city had not institutionalized sustainability," he notes. "It was grassroots started by employees and really never was supported."

As the state grant that funded McCausland's office ran out, the program died. And Bach's failure to pick up funding for it got people riled up at Council budget hearings.

"More people protested the dissolution of the sustainability office than all others things combined," Kittle says.

In late October 2012, Neumann told Council she expected new ideas quickly from the mayor's sustainability team.

"It has to be pretty fast because at the end of the year, if it's not funded, we have to part company [with the sustainability office]," she said.

"I do hope to report back within the next six weeks the finding of this team."

The team started meeting in December and delivered its report to Bach in June and to Council on Aug. 26.

The team focused attention on water conservation, tracking utility bills to lay a plan to reduce energy usage, and streetlight replacement.

It suggested the city rewrite ordinances to not require as much or any bluegrass in commercial developments and to continue installing efficient irrigation systems in parks. But Councilor Jan Martin says Council discussed the turf idea six years ago and "got a lot of pushback from the building community."

The team also reported the city doesn't track energy usage very well, if at all.

"In private business those numbers are the basis for sound policy decisions," team member Toby Gannett told Council. "Much of what we talked about is bringing the city up to sound financial stewardship to what businesses are already doing. We need to really ramp this up as a community, so we get the data we need to truly move forward."

The team also recommended immediate installation of LEDs, which use 40 to 60 percent less power than traditional bulbs. Mostly funded with grant money, the city has switched out 622 streetlights in Acacia Park, on Tejon Street downtown, in Old Colorado City and on the Colorado Avenue bridge. The city has a total of roughly 26,000 streetlights citywide, says principal traffic engineer Rob Helt.

The team told Council that LEDs, which it estimated at $250 each, would cost $7.3 million to replace and yield a return on its investment in 3.46 years. But Helt tells the Indy that one style of LED cost the city $1,254 each, and another, $585 each, giving the city a payback ranging from seven to 17 years based on an estimated capital outlay of $12 million to $18 million. "I wasn't contacted by the sustainability committee, so I can't tell you where they got their information," Helt says.

Explaining the discrepancy, Gannett and Kittle say the cost of LEDs is expected to decline.

Saving the world

So who would carry out and oversee the work? The Sustainability Team's PowerPoint presentation recommended "special assignment incentives" to existing department heads and channeling the work "through a funded Sustainability Office."

That led Martin to wonder if the team was aware the city had such an office until this year.

"Are you recommending we bring that back?" she asked.

Team co-chair Joe Corrigan hedged. "The recommendation is to have a function," he said. "Maybe it's not funded. Maybe it's contained in the current staff levels. The slide was heavy-handed to say it has to be funded." But he added, "A champion to drive all that activity would be beneficial to any organization."

Councilor Jill Gaebler offered to be that champion, but staffing an office is unlikely.

In a statement, Bach's Chief of Staff Laura Neumann said, "Mayor Bach expects all of the City departments to enact practical solutions and implement sustainability practices effectively across the organization and has charged the Chief of Staff with outlining the processes/resources to do so."

McCausland, now working on communications and sustainability for the city of Tacoma, Wash., says such programs need staff to give them legitimacy, as well as a healthy employee and cultural environment, "and that's not the city of Colorado Springs."

"I really can't understand a decision that eliminates a division that, without a cost to itself, does good for the Earth and community," she says. "It can only be driven by backward political ideology which should have no place in local government as it alienates such a large part of the community.

"I hope they do reinstate a program. After all, it's not like we were saving the world or anything. Oh wait, we were. And they still can."

Or, more simply put by Sustainability Team member Ellery Miller to Council, "There was $4 million in savings when there was a sustainability department funded by the city, and those are ongoing."

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