We Can't Afford to Close Knoxville's Office of Sustainability

The city must find a way to retain an increasingly vital department

It was not so long ago—say when your parents were your age—that any candidate for mayor of Knoxville who said they believed in a "green and sustainable" Knoxville could expect a steady barrage of labels flung their way, from "hippie" to "tree-hugger" to "socialist," any of which would stick to them all the way to their last-place showing in the election. Our fair city would then be kept safe for at least four more years from the communist plots of recycling, solar energy, and sidewalks.

Back then, who would have dreamed that a (dare I say moderate?) Republican prince of the local oil dynasty would flip that script soon after assuming the mayoral throne? And to do this by hiring the "green and sustainable" candidate who almost beat him? And then to appoint her to lead his new Energy and Sustainability Task Force? And then for voters to elect her as mayor in her own right, in a campaign where she said she believes Knoxville can become the greenest city in America? Clearly this is not your parents' Knoxville.

Except that it is just like your parents' Knoxville in one kind of important way: It takes taxpayer money to make it work. This year it is Mayor Madeline Rogero's first turn to propose how the city will spend taxpayer money to do the things a city needs to do, from police and fire protection to mowing park grass to picking up garbage to—yes—recycling.

Knoxville now has a mayor who, as a former county commissioner and city department head, has an intimate understanding out of the gate of what it takes to balance a public budget. So it was no surprise when, at a budget meeting last month, Ms. Rogero expressed a general reluctance to recommend new spending for city departments. Responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars—Job One for any mayor—requires no less. Yet while most city departments might make do with no new spending this year, the one department that most directly carries out the "green and sustainable" mission in Knoxville faces extinction. Irony alert: The sustainability of the Knoxville Office of Sustainability may be in jeopardy.

Susanna Sutherland was hired to start up and manage the Office of Sustainability with a federal stimulus grant in 2009. That grant money runs out this year. To say that Ms. Sutherland, who holds a master's degree in Biosystems Engineering from the University of Tennessee's College of Agriculture, has been busy the last three years, is an understatement. But in a job funded by taxpayer dollars, busy, in and of itself, does not cut it. In the city's budgetary process the final question is, "Has the Office of Sustainability—or any department or program, for that matter—been earning its keep?"

The numbers speak for themselves. Ms. Sutherland guided or assisted in the launching of major projects that show respectable, quantifiable results. The curbside recycling program was rolled out for about 17,000 residents last October. In its first quarter it collected and turned into cash over 1,000 tons of material otherwise headed for the landfill. On the solar side, the office can show that its arrangement for financing, purchase, and installation of the solar systems on the convention center and the celebrated KAT Transit Center, along with technical assistance to enable some private solar projects to happen, has increased Knoxville's solar capacity by a factor of 13 in just under three years. In terms of avoided carbon emissions, they calculate that is like taking almost 3,500 cars off the road every year. But the biggest bang for the city's sustainability buck so far is the implementation of the energy service contract with Ameresco, Inc. The savings guaranteed in the Ameresco contract—in everything from weatherization to swapping out old-school light bulbs for compact flourescents, and/or replacing ancient boiler units with new HVAC systems in the city's 99 buildings, 37 ballparks, and three golf courses—add up to about $1 million yearly in what was a $5 million annual utility bill. That pays for the installation and maintenance of those measures, and then some. It could also help pay to keep a certain city department open.

On a basic bank balance sheet the Office of Sustainability might justify its existence just in terms of direct return on investment. But in a dicey economy it will not really be earning its keep until energy efficiency and renewable energy is as understood, valued, and made as available in Vestal and Burlington as it is in Sequoya Hills or a city golf pro shop. For this, Knoxville will need to take cues from other cities that have successfully expanded sustainability projects, such as home weatherization, by explicitly linking them to economic development, i.e. jobs, in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.

While the Office of Sustainability can and should ramp up its emphasis on job creation, something else adds at least as much value to the city through that department as the already-realized savings of taxpayer dollars and carbon emissions. If that department vaporizes, what is the fate of the Energy and Sustainability Workplan, the document that came out of the task force that was co-chaired by Madeline Rogero? Many hundreds of cumulative hours over two years were devoted to creating it, by Sustainability staff and dozens of committed and talented volunteers in six working groups. That process harvested the best sustainability thinking throughout the community, culminating in 31 very specific action steps to "grow our community in economically, environmentally, and socially responsible ways," as quoted in the document. Now that we have the green road map we asked and paid for, it seems we owe it to the greenest city in America, if not the mapmakers, to follow it.

Responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars—Job One for any mayor—requires no less.

Rick Held served on the Energy Working Group of the Mayor's Energy and Sustainability Task Force and is co-founder of the Knoxville Energy Alliance and Partnership for Green Jobs.