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With its staff of eight employees and $3.2-million budget, the Office of Sustainability is one of the smallest departments in city government. It’s a small line item in the 2015 proposed annual operating and capital budget of $2.4 billion now under review and set for a vote on Sept. 18.
Chief Sustainability Officer Douglas Melnick, recruited to the job this year from a similar position in Albany, New York, told City Council in his Thursday presentation that about half of his budget comes from Texas Department of Transportation grants and programs, paying for initiatives like expansion of the popular B-Cycle bike share program.
With its mission to improve the city’s air and water quality, its sustainable transportation options and implement energy efficiencies and environmental safeguards, the Office of Sustainability might best be described as low-cost, high impact. In the national competition among cities to attract talented young professionals, quality of life issues are key to recruiting Millennials to live and work in attractive urban core environments.
That made it all the more surprising, then, when District 9 Councilmember Joe Krier (top photo) reacted to Melnick’s low-key presentation of the department’s budget by suddenly calling for its elimination, saying Melnick and his staff and the work they do are a waste of manpower and money.
“With all due respect, if we eliminated this entire department next Thursday, 95% of what is in this very thoughtful (budget) handout would continue because it’s the right thing to do,” Krier said after his initial remarks were met with strong opposition from other Council members.
District 6 Councilmember Ray Lopez said it was fair to demand data-driven results from Sustainability, but there was no doubting the critical importance of its mission.
“This is a long-term investment,” Lopez said. “If we don’t do something now, the generations ahead of us will be paying dearly. We need to invest in this … with all due respect to Councilman Krier.”
“We know this is not just about clear air and water, it’s also about economic return,” said District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg, who is chairing the multi-agency Comprehensive Planning Committee that will be formed in the coming weeks. “I believe the work you (Sustainability) are doing, while we may not see returns immediately, is an investment in our future.”
Krier initially criticized the staff and resources devoted to the Office of Sustainability and what he said were insufficient staff and resources devoted to the military. A single city staffer is assigned as a liaison to the military and area bases. Krier did not identify what additional work he wanted undertaken or what issues were unmet with current staffing. He expressed frustration with what he said was an “up or down vote” on the City budget, with few opportunities for officeholders to reallocate resources.
District 7 Councilmember Mari Aguirre-Rodriguez, a former Rackspace executive, pointed out some of the acute generational differences between her and Krier.
“I grew up in the generation with B-Cycle – we drive hybrid vehicles,” she said. “At Rackspace data centers, sustainability and energy savings were key.”
Noting that San Antonio is the last major U.S. city still narrowly within the EPA’s air quality guidelines and is now experiencing rapidly declining air quality that experts attribute to suburban sprawl, increased vehicle traffic, and activity in the Eagle Ford Shale Play, Aguirre-Rodriguez added, “If we don’t have quality air we have real problems. I don’t know anything more important than that.”
Krier’s comments were unexpected and a bit startling with Melnick’s Millennial generation staff seated in a front row in Council chambers as their department’s budget and accomplishments over the last year were presented.
Melnick showed Council a sample of the 450 cycling helmets his staff will distribute for free to children and some adults at the Sunday, Sept. 28 Síclovía event to be held at Alamo Plaza and along Broadway north to Mulberry. He also announced a TXDOT-funded expansion of San Antonio B-Cycle, the state’s first bike share program. The system’s current network of 53 bike stations will grow by 18-20 stations and 150 bikes, Melnick said.
One measure of the bike share’s growing impact in the city is that two Council members asked Melnick to make sure their districts were included in the expansion. District 2 Councilmember Keith Toney, who represents the Eastside, which is the subject of a $177 million private-public transformation and reinvestment program, noted the lack of B-Cycle stations in his district.
Melnick later said his staff was studying Eastpoint, in particular, to look for bike station opportunities. He also praised the program and the work of Cindi Snell, co-owner of Bike World bike shops and the unpaid executive director of the nonprofit B-Cycle. Melnick said he was working with Snell to try to find corporate support and underwriting for the bike share program, common in other cities where bike stations and bikes are prominently branded with local corporate names. Such private sector support is still lacking in San Antonio.
“Every time you see someone on a B-Cycle, they are smiling,” Melnick said. “It’s one of the reasons my family and I came here. We wanted to live in a city with bike share. It’s recreational and functional transportation, and people love it. It’s a great program.”
Melnick said the department’s Energy Efficiency Fund was one of the City’s most progressive initiatives not yet matched in many other cities.
“One of the exciting things for me about coming here was the Energy Efficiency Fund that was established in 2011, something I had wanted to create in Albany,” Melnick said. “Under (City Manager) Sheryl Sculley’s leadership it happened here with stimulus dollars and it’s dedicated to funding improvements, primarily energy efficiency improvements, in buildings and at all city facilities. In other cities where I’ve worked, the temptation is to take the savings and do something else with the money. Here the savings are recycled back into the fund and we target more projects.”
The Office of Sustainability has cumulatively undertaken 348 energy-saving projects at 165 City facilities, Melnick said, saving $2.1 million in energy costs, and eliminating 12,000 tons of CO2E.
“We get new technology all the time, so we’ll always be looking for new efficiencies,” he said.
Melnick said his staff also is reviewing new options for re-establishing the downtown carshare program, which was canceled earlier this summer when Hertz declined to continue to participate.
*Featured/top image: District 9 Councilmember Joe Krier talks with citizens before the Council’s special session to elect an interim mayor in July 2014. Photo by Scott Ball.