City has new sustainability plan with enhanced priorities

June 27, 2010
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In addition to agreeing to a set of priorities to change the way city services are delivered, Grand Rapids city commissioners also adopted Version 2.0 of the city’s five-year sustainability plan last week.

“This is an important piece of work that we do that sometimes gets passed over,” said Mayor George Heartwell of the action plan. “You don’t see this in cities around the country.”

The plan is spelled out in a 33-page report that is available on the city’s website. It outlines what the city hopes to accomplish over the next five fiscal years in three key areas of the city: its economy, its social fabric and its environment.

“This is a significant update from the plan we issued a few years ago,” said Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong. “The differences in this plan are substantial from the first version.”

A key difference is that the progress made by the city in each area will be charted and updated on a quarterly basis and published online. “People will be able to track along with us,” said DeLong.

The plan’s economic section has six overall goals; one of those is to increase business investment in the city. That goal has six targets the city wants to hit, two by June 30, 2011, and four by June 30, 2015. By this time next year, the city wants new business investment to reach $100 million, and $16 million in private funds to be invested in vacant, blighted or contaminated properties.

“You’ll see a lot of targets there,” said DeLong of the economic section. “Every (city) department has the ability to engage in the plan.”

Commissioners took action on an item that relates to the plan’s environmental section by approving a recyclable materials agreement the city negotiated with Kent County. It moves the city and the county into a new single-stream recycling program, which means residents won’t have to separate materials for pickup. The items will be taken to the county’s $12 million recycling center on Wealthy Street SW, scheduled to open in August.

The contract calls for the county to lend the city $1.6 million at 3 percent for five years to buy 37,000 carts to collect recyclable materials. The carts will be electronically coded with residents’ addresses in order to track the amount of recyclables put out for pickup. Electronic readers will be installed on the city’s trucks to record the collections, and residents who recycle the most will be rewarded. The county is also giving the city $10,000 to promote and market the new program.

“It’s a pretty good deal,” said 1st Ward Commissioner Walt Gutowski of the loan’s interest rate and the fact that the new coded carts cost the same as the un-coded ones.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently named Grand Rapids the most sustainable mid-sized city in the country. By giving the city its Siemens Sustainable Community Award, the chamber cited Grand Rapids as “an American leader in the practice of sustainability.”

Now the city will try to transform itself into another type of leader by revamping the way it delivers services to create a more sustainable model.

Commissioners approved four priorities that they hope lead the city into accomplishing that mission: improve customer service; review city operations and possibly enlist other groups to manage some of them; reduce employee compensation by 10 percent; and consolidate city assets.

Consolidating city assets involves reviewing all city-owned properties, relocating some operations, and then disposing of any excess properties. The city needs to receive concessions from all of its bargaining units by the end of this year if it wants to reduce employee compensation. Two non-union employee groups recently refused to reject a 2.5 percent salary hike that was to go into effect June 30, and city commissioners rescinded the increases. Commissioners made other changes including raising the share of health care premiums for workers from 10 to 20 percent.

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