COLUMBIA — The city of Columbia is hiring. That is, if agreement on a job description can be reached.
Included in next year’s proposed city budget is a partially grant-funded position for a sustainability manager, but disagreement has emerged on what that person will do. Some want the position to spearhead a community effort to get Columbians thinking green and to implement community-wide changes to transportation and energy use, as a start. Others believe this position should focus on energy efficiency in city government buildings.
Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe initially thought of creating a sustainability manager in the spring of 2008.
“We voted as a council to sign onto the Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement several years ago, but we did not really follow through with creating an action plan for implementing those goals,” she said.
Hoppe said she learned other communities were creating a sustainability manager position to help implement that agreement. She said she felt Columbia should do the same.
Hoppe wants the position to follow other communities’ examples. She said she hopes to see building codes upgraded to emphasize energy efficiency and green standards. She also said the sustainability manager would be integral to developing a better mass transit system. To help make that system more profitable, she said, the sustainability manager would recommend changes in development that would increase density in some areas.
“I think every area of city government can be affected,” she said.
Dan Goldstein, a member of the Environment and Energy Commission, agreed the position should have a broad influence.
"Sustainability is affected by many things such as recycling, solid waste, storm water runoff, growth and how growth is planned, water supply ... these are complex issues that need to be looked at across department lines,” Goldstein said.
The Environment and Energy Commission has been asked by the council to make a recommendation on a job description. Currently, a subcommittee of the commission is trying to pound out those details before the council votes to approve the budget in late September.
The commission was presented with city staff’s recommendations at its July meeting. Most of the 11-member commission felt that recommendation, which they said focused on increasing the energy efficiency of city buildings, was too narrow.
"We wanted to get the whole city moving in the direction of sustainability, and I think that job description came out as managing the whole grant and getting the City of Columbia to green up the 13 city buildings," commission member Tom O’Connor said.
Connor wants the sustainability manager to develop a plan to push Columbia off of dependence on fossil fuels and to create a community reliant on sustainable, renewable energy. He admits that’s a lofty goal, though.
"Optimally the concept of sustainability should be more ingrained in everybody's DNA. Until it's a built-in core value of our culture, we'll have to have specifically designated champions of sustainability,” O’Connor said.
City Manager Bill Watkins doesn’t think this is the time for such a champion, though. Watkins said the position’s initial focus would be on implementing the grant proposal the city wrote for U.S. Department of Energy stimulus funds. That proposal included plans for energy efficiency analyses of and improvements to city-owned buildings, as well as the development of incentives for new commercial buildings to meet Energy Star standards. The non-competitive grant guarantees the city will receive close to $1 million over three years to fund these projects and partially fund this position.
Some might say this person needs to strictly be a champion for sustainability, but first and foremost we need to administer this grant, so the sustainability manager will need to cross all those t's and dot all those i's,” he said.
Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill agreed the position should mainly focus on administering the grant.
"We have to find a way to make the most of what we can of the position by trying to make the grants offset the costs,” Thornhill said. “It’s an expensive enough undertaking that if we didn’t have the grant, we probably wouldn’t do it.”
Thornhill thought it best that the city manage its energy efficiency before asking the community to do the same.
"The primary goal is to lead by example. It’s hard to tell folks who pay utilities to try to run their houses and their businesses more efficiently if we don’t do it ourselves,” he said.
One council member doesn't see a need for the position.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser said she agreed with trying to conserve and save energy where possible but is uncomfortable with funding a position through time-stamped stimulus funds.
"I just don’t feel in this time of economic downturn we should be adding a new position and a new department,” she said. “I feel like I need to grab a bottle of antacid – it’s giving me heartburn.”
The position’s creation, in whatever form, hangs on its approval in the 2010 budget. The City Council is expected to approve a finalized budget at its regular meeting Sept. 21. If approved, Watkins said he expects the position to be filled by January.