GOSHEN — Plans by Goshen Mayor Jeremy Stutsman to create a new environmentally-focused department for the city took a tentative step forward Tuesday during a meeting of the Goshen City Council.

During the meeting, council members were asked to vote on an ordinance that would officially create the new Department of Environmental Resilience, which is being proposed by Stutsman as a way to organize and promote various green initiatives within the city, such as plans for carbon neutrality by 2035 and the establishment of a 45 percent urban tree canopy by 2045.

“This is all about helping to bring all our departments closer together, and making sure that we’re continuing to look for efficiencies. A lot of those efficiencies will be environmental,” Stutsman said in introducing the proposal. “And we want to better the city budget over the next several years, for future councils and future mayors. We want to do everything we can to help lower that cost of just under $900,000 a year that we spend on utilities and fuel. That’s just one area that we’re going to be working to lower cost. And I think that we can really work forward, work quicker and do better things for city government and the community itself if we are able to create space for these conversations and create a department that can actually focus on these types of issue.”

THE DEPARTMENT

As currently proposed, Stutsman said the new environmental department would initially consist of two full-time employees who would be shifted from their current positions at the Goshen Parks Department. Those positions would include Goshen City Forester Aaron Sawatsky-Kingsley, who would serve as director of the new department and oversee all of its activities and programs, and his administrative assistant.

 

In addition, Stutsman noted that he would also like to create a new employment position specifically for the department, the responsibilities of which would include assisting the city forester with his new workload and existing forestry duties, offering environment- related assistance to other departments, and taking on the task of being the city’s first in-house grant writer.

“This is a project that I think will definitely help several of our departments in very set ways,” Stutsman told the council. “The grant writer that we’re asking for, I think that’s going to help the community as a whole, and really help free up time in our current departments, and also give us the opportunity to look for some grants that we may not even know about, or aren’t going after right now.”

According to Sawatsky-Kingsley, the administrative functions of the new Department of Environmental Resilience would ideally include the following:

• Maintenance, preservation, management and enhancement of Goshen’s urban forest through policy and practice in order to achieve 45 percent urban tree canopy coverage across the city by 2045;

• Education of the city’s administration and the general public relative to natural resource protection, opportunities for energy consumption efficiencies, waste reduction and other green initiatives;

• Creation and implementation of an environmental action plan for the city, as well as implementation of programs and policies related to environmental resilience, such as forestry, stormwater management and energy efficiency;

• Provide support and coordination to city departments, boards and commissions as they undertake projects that affect the city’s natural assets;

• Propose goals for annual progress for the city in the areas of forestry and other areas related to environmental resilience; and

• Perform other functions reasonably related to environmental resilience.

“The department will be a place to test, to try and fail, and try new angles in pursuit of techniques that make the city more livable and more efficient, and which contribute to the greater health of our environment,” Sawatsky-Kingsley told the council Tuesday. “My proposal is that we work together to balance all these needs, and that a department will help us to find the energy for that and the focus for that.”

COST TO IMPLEMENT

Speaking to the cost of creating the new department, Stutsman said the current salaries of Sawatsky-Kingsley and his administrative assistant, their benefits, and all budget lines currently connected to the city’s forestry program would be transferred over to the new department, the total of which would equal about $374,000.

Additional funding would also need to be provided for the new grant-writer position, which would equate to about another $80,000 in annual salary and benefits, Stutsman explained. He also said he would like to earmark another $150,000 just to help get the department up and running, allow for the hiring a few consultants if needed, and add a little bit more robustness to the forestry program.

“All that together equals $600,000. I will not come back to the council with any more than $600,000, and it may be less than that,” Stutsman said of the necessary funding requirements. “And just keep in mind that $374,000 of that is money we are spending today. So this is an increase of $230,000 to our city budget.”

Stutsman went on to note that the city is currently projected to have an available cash balance of $28.9 million by the end of 2019, so funding of the new department should result in very little hardship when it comes to the city’s overall budget.

“I think we’re at the point where we want to be really conscious and protect money, but we don’t want to just keep saving and stockpiling it,” Stutsman said. “We need to be using the money to better our community, and to honor that those are tax dollars, and to use them appropriately. So we have the money to pay for this.”

MORE REGULATIONS?

While a majority of the council’s members seemed generally supportive of the overall goals expressed by Stutsman for the department, several council and audience members voiced concerns related to what the new department may mean for city businesses, noting specifically their concerns related to the potential for more environmental regulations.

“The big concern is, are there going to be more regulations that are going to be put out on me as a citizen, or businesses, that is going to cause more pain in the process of doing things?” asked David Daugherty, former president of the Goshen Chamber of Commerce and a candidate for City Council.

In response to the question, Stutsman noted that causing more regulatory headaches for local businesses was never his intention when formulating the plan for his new department.

“We’re not asking for that. That is not what this is about. I can’t do that. This department can’t do that. It takes City Council, state or federal governments to do that,” Stutsman said. “And whether or not we create this department today, if we’re fearful of what the next mayor might do, what the next council might do, it doesn’t change what they might do. If they want to do those types of regulations in the future, they’ll do them. So I think it

would be much safer for us to be cognizant of that, and be honest that that’s not what we’re looking for. But I don’t want to run a city or govern out of the fear of what people might do five, 10, 15 years down the road. I think we need to do what’s right for us now, and hope that the appropriate people follow us.”

NEW DEPARTMENT NEEDED?

Also raised as a concern by some on the council Tuesday was whether the mayor’s desire to create an entirely new department to handle the proposed goals is even necessary, when in their minds those goals could potentially be pursued within the existing city government framework.

“I have yet to really come across someone who didn’t agree with the educational purpose of this, the cost savings potential and sharing that information citywide, the grant-writing is a huge asset ... So the concept of the position I don’t think is even in question,” council member Brett Weddell said of the proposal. “The question that has been presented to me — and I kind of ask this too — is, can it be done within an existing department, where the job description is laid out specifically ... and we accomplish the exact same ends without the department? That’s just one of those questions that keeps coming forward.”

Council member Adam Scharf offered a similar sentiment.

“Do you have an IT department? Do you have an arts department? I mean, there are a lot of things that you could create a department for that are good causes. And that’s not the question either. This is a good and important cause. But is a department thats primary function is to support other departments, does that make sense from an administrative, structural governance point of view?” Scharf asked of the request. “I’m open to hearing that case made, and I’m also open to hearing if alternatives have been weighed, and these are the pros, and these are the cons ... and I’d be glad to have that meeting and interviewing time between first and second readings.”

In the end, a majority of the council’s members agreed, and a motion to approve the ordinance on first reading only was passed in a vote of 4-2 in favor, with one “Pass” by Scharf.

Given that there was not unanimous consent to have a second and final reading of the ordinance during Tuesday’s meeting, the final vote on the ordinance will be held over until the council’s upcoming Sept. 3 meeting.

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