City and GVSU extend sustainability agreement

October 28, 2011
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The city of Grand Rapids recently extended its sustainability agreement with Grand Valley State University, a contract that has existed for the past two years.

According to the city, the university's Transformation Research and Analysis Team has played an important role since September 2009 in helping the city become sustainable and assisting the city transform the way it delivers services and operates.

Two years ago, City Manager Greg Sundstrom put the city on a path to transform itself within five years. The team's primary goal is to find enough operational savings to make the city fully sustainable by the 2016 fiscal year.

"The TRAT has been created as a tool for city departments and elected officials to conduct research and analysis in areas of interest identified as vital to transforming the city's operation and/or service delivery model," said Tom Almonte, an assistant to Sundstrom.

"This is a powerful piece of work we're doing here," added Mayor George Heartwell.

The city's new one-year agreement with GVSU will direct TRAT's efforts toward the city's fairly new Office of Energy and Sustainability, which is headed by Haris Alibasic.

"The OES is focused on developing sound strategy, applying what we have learned, monitoring our results, and reporting our success both internally and externally," Alibasic said.

The city updated its sustainability plan a few months ago and set new triple-bottom-line goals in its annual operating budgets through 2015 for economic, environmental and social outcomes.

Just in the last year, the city's partnership with GVSU has provided support for the OES' and the mayor's roles in the Community Sustainability Partnership and helped with the development and maintenance of the city's sustainability website, the research and benchmarking of sustainability efforts that other cities have undertaken, the update of the city's sustainability plan, and special OES projects related to energy planning, among other accomplishments.

Four GVSU undergraduates and three of the university's graduate students served as interns at the city over the past year.

"The reports that we get back are remarkable," said City Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss. Bliss said she would like future studies to take a more detailed approach by focusing on each of the city's three wards.

Over the coming year, TRAT will assist the city in increasing its social media presence and help the city's Customer First Response Team. The city recently launched Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages to better communicate goals and outcomes with residents and even to those outside the city.

"We also assigned one student to work with each of the CFR Team managers. Moving the TRAT program forward will include work related to research and analysis, social media and CFR. We believe that this work can be completed without increasing the number of students or cost to the city," said Almonte.

Norman Christopher, Olwen Urquhart, Margaret Carney, Aaron Ferguson and Kevin Bergy serve on TRAT. The new agreement runs through Sept. 30, 2012, and will cost the city $84,950. The city will make that payment in four quarterly installments.

"We've reduced the amount we're asking for this year by $5,000," Almonte told commissioners before they approved the agreement a few weeks ago. Alibasic said the city has probably gotten back $4 or $5 for every dollar it has invested in this partnership.

The new contract is expected to increase efficiencies in city operations and create additional value for its services. The university will also try to establish solid benchmarking standards that will lead to best practices for applying sustainability measures to the city's service delivery.

"The city and GVSU will continue to work together to meet the research needs of the city and identify specific sustainable development projects, data outputs, desired outcomes and performance measurements to ensure the highest probability of success in implementation," said Almonte.

The city already has made its mark in the sustainability field. It won the Siemens Sustainability Award for mid-sized communities last year from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Center and Siemens Corp. Also, the United Nations Regional Center of Expertise of Education for Sustainable Development recognized the city and GVSU for demonstrating international leadership in the field.

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