2014-11-28 / Community

South Portland to hire sustainability coordinator

By Duke Harrington
Contributing writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Proving that its recently adopted “Climate Action Plan” is not a report destined to collect dust on some city hall shelf, the South Portland City Council has created a new position to see that its recommendations become reality.

At its most recent meeting, the council voted unanimously to create a “sustainability coordinator” — the actual job title has not been finalized — funding the position with found money from ecomaine, the city’s solid waste and recycling service.

In October, ecomaine distributed $1 million, derived from better-than-expected revenues, to its 20 owner municipalities. South Portland’s share, formally accepted by councilors at their Nov. 17 meeting, came to $127,194.

From that, the council agreed to spend $28,038 to pay the city’s new climate czar from January to the end of the current fiscal year, June 30. Adding in the cost of health insurance and retirement benefits, along with state and federal withholding, will bring the total cost of the position to nearly $42,000.

“We are really ramped up here internally to get moving on this climate action plan,” Gailey said. “But we also are limited on capacity and knowledge of sustainability practices.”

With no one on staff trained to oversee green initiatives, or with the spare time to take on the extra duties, Gailey had actually hoped to launch the program last spring, months before the Climate Action Plan was finally adopted. It was one of the last things he cut from the current budget in order to limbo under the council’s bottom line.

The ecomaine rebate has now resurrected that cut, giving it a half-year head start on the next budget cycle.

“The timing is perfect,” said Councilor Tom Blake. “There couldn’t be a more natural funding source to kick start this Climate Action Plan. “We need a leader. We need a champion. We need someone with the technical expertise to help us get there.”

Gailey said he hopes to have a full job description prepared by the beginning of December, with a search for a suitable applicant set to begin in early January. Gailey said he expects the position to be a part of his fiscal year 2016 budget, which would add roughly $84,000 to the city payroll.

“A good sustainability person will more than make up their salary in grants brought into the city and on (energy) savings, and other things we haven’t thought of yet,” said Mayor-elect Linda Cohen.

The council also voted unanimously to spend $23,000 of the ecomaine rebate on three-year leases for two Nissan Leaf electric vehicles. Another $300 was set aside to buy 50 recycling containers for use at various city buildings, while $3,000 will be spent on a Level II electric charging station. That unit will be put at the planning and development office on Sawyer Street, supplementing one that went in at the city hall parking lot this past week. Gailey has said previously that he hopes the charging station at the planning office can be connected to the solar panels installed in 2013 on the roof of that building.

Unlike the DC Quick Charge station installed at the community center in July, which can juice up an electric vehicle to 80 percent power in as little as 30 minutes, the Level II units at city hall and the planning office will require several hours to supply a full charge. However, Gailey said that was fine, as the units would mostly be used for vehicles in the city fleet left at the offices overnight. Also, he noted, the Quick Charge unit costs about $30,000 more than the Level II systems.

After the agreed-upon expenditures, South Portland will have $58,894 leftover from its ecomaine rebate, which will be placed into a “sustainability reserve,” giving the new coordinator a bank to work with for implementing various projects.

It’s a safe bet that the person, when hired, will have the full support of the incoming council, to be sworn in Dec. 1. On his Facebook campaign page, since turned into District 1 discussion site, incoming Councilor Claude Morgan posted his excitement for what’s to come. The post was made just days after his election, following a Nov. 12 workshop of the sitting council on how best to implement the 202-page Climate Action Plan.

“Friends, mark the calendar year and strap in for the ride. If the (Nov. 12) council workshop is any indication of our future then you can expect our city to dramatically reduce its carbon footprint, reduce the long-term cost of city services and soon lead the state of Maine in green technology and know-how,” he wrote. “The chemistry is there. The leadership is in place. This council is moving our city in a very healthy direction. You heard it here first.”

That sentiment was echoed by Blake at the most recent council meeting.

“From day one, this (sustainability) person is going to have a lot of work to do and will get complete support from our city staff and, hopefully, from our city council,” he said.

Literally years in the making, the Climate Action Plan is the culmination of a 2010 sustainability resolve, adopted by the council to demonstrate its commitment to eventually incorporate green practices into all city operations. That vote was an outgrowth of a 2007 vote, when, during Morgan’s term as mayor, the council agreed to sign the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.

That agreement called on participating communities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent before 2017. In South Portland’s case, that translated to a goal of 1,700 metric tons of CO2e (carbon dioxide-equivalent gasses) based on the 10,100 metric tons of CO2e the city was producing at the time.

In 2008 the council created an Energy and Recycling Committee and set it to work on the first phases of the reduction goal. That resulted in a sustainability resolve adopted by the council in 2010, which laid out a number of conservation practices.

Among the first things to go were the mini-fridges kept by almost everyone with an office at city hall, and various administrative buildings. The city also entered into an energy savings audit with Siemens that, Gailey said, “played a huge benefit in our buildings.” The city ended up converting many buildings to natural gas, including used boilers installed in the fire and police departments, and began to focus on purchasing higher mpg vehicles. It also switched to LED lighting for the annual holiday festival and installed solar panels on the planning and development office. More recently, the assessor’s office has been hooked into that system.

It also has reduced costs from $340,000 per year to $218,000 at the sewage treatment plant through the addition of various energy conservation projects, Gailey said.

Key recommendations in the new plan include creation of a solar farm atop the old city landfill off Highland Avenue — a project that ran into cost concerns at a recent council workshop — and the installation of more low-energy LED streetlights, to match the ones installed two years ago in Knightville, as well as converting the city’s entire fleet of non-emergency vehicles to electric power.

Funding for those big-ticket items could prove costly for taxpayers, absent additional outside funding, such as the recent ecomaine rebate. The solar farm array alone has been pegged at more than $2 million.

Unfortunately, more rebates from ecomaine may not be in the offing. An Oct. 21 press release from the firm credited the gift to its recycling operations, which were up 22 percent year-to-year, for a processing record of 42,000 tons of material. The ecomaine waste-to-energy plant also benefited from a 27 percent income hike based on an increase in the price of electricity, it said. But a good portion of the uptick came from outside ecomaine’s owner and member communities. Gailey, who also presides over the ecomaine Board of Directors, said the company benefitted when a similar operation in New Hampshire went down for maintenance for nearly five months, during which time its traffic was diverted to ecomaine.

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