Tacoma dedicates $3 million a year to sustainability. Pierce County? Another story

Pierce County government and the City of Tacoma have created plans to increase energy conservation and reduce waste by 2020.

Both want to improve air quality, decrease water and energy use in public buildings, reduce reliance on fossil fuels and educate the public to make greener choices.

The difference?

Tacoma has created an office dedicated to the effort, staffed by 14 workers with a budget of $6 million in the 2019-20 biennial budget. That’s roughly $3 million per year.

At Pierce County, the Office of Sustainability folded last year when the sole employee left the position for another job in county government. It’s not clear if anyone now is working to implement or track progress toward the county’s goals.

Of Pierce County’s 15 sustainability goals, nine were considered to lag behind where they needed to be to reach 2020 benchmarks, according to the last annual sustainability report in 2017.

That doesn’t sit well with some County Council members.

“It was literally one guy instructing the entire county on sustainability issues,” County Council member Derek Young told The News Tribune. “I want a department who’s entire being is to focus on what makes this place great.

“It’s not acceptable to me that we would not be leading the way, let alone doing the bare minimum to mitigate climate change.”

County Executive Bruce Dammeier’s 2020-21 budget proposal released earlier this month includes a position to update and manage the 2020 sustainability goals and beyond.

Tacoma’s approach to climate change

In 2008, Tacoma launched its Office of Sustainability and Environmental Policy and set 2020 goals to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

It is making strides to reduce emissions by 40 percent from where they were in 1990, using strategies both internally and citywide.

We should be right in the ballpark,” said Jim Parvey, director of the city of Tacoma’s Office of Environmental Policy and Sustainability.

The city’s goal for 2050 — 80 percent below 1990 levels, or less than 500,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year — is another story.

“We’re going to have to up our game to make the 2050 goal,” Parvey said.

The city’s 2019-20 budget dedicates $6.2 million to the office, with 14.5 full-time equivalent employees ranging from sustainability officers to community outreach specialists.

The roles of those employees include reducing food waste, managing the city’s urban forests, teaching environmental lessons to Tacoma students through the EnviroChallenger program and conducting outreach to residents in recycling and waste management.

The office created the Climate Action Plan in 2008, but that was replaced in 2016 by the Environmental Action Plan (EAP), which had updated goals.

While some of the goals of Tacoma’s EAP have been reached, others haven’t. Some measures have gotten worse.

Out of 24 target goals set in the EAP, seven have been met and seven others are behind the baseline or worse off than when the plan was first enacted, according to the latest report released in April 2019.

As of the end of 2018, the city successfully met its EAP 2020 goals to:

Build 53 blocks of permeable residential streets.

Increase its tree canopy by 500 trees.

Increase the amount of spaces using green stormwater infrastructure by 580 acres.

Reduce electricity used by the city by 10 percent.

Increase solar power by 26 percent.

Reduce bicycle and pedestrian collisions in low-income areas by 50 percent.

On the other side of the ledge, over the same time, the city:

Increased both city and community single-occupancy vehicle trips.

Had eight fewer days of healthy air levels.

Increased peak water use by more than 2,000 gallons per account between 2017 and 2018.

Lost more than 1,000 volunteers, many of which help with environmental education programs across the city.

Parvey calls the goals aggressive.

“I’m proud of the work we’ve done, but there’s more to be done,” he said.

Pierce County’s effort

The county’s Office of Sustainability was created in 2010 with a staff of one employee who had an annual salary of $117,162. That employee, Ryan Dicks, was transferred five times in eight years across a number of departments.

Dicks wrote in a 2018 blog post that he was moving a sixth time to the Planning and Public Works Department. After he took the new position, the Office of Sustainability was wiped from the 2019 budget.

His new and current role as sustainable resources administrator focuses on waste reduction, recycling and public education, Toby Rickman, the deputy director of Planning and Public Works told The News Tribune.

Since Dick’s most recent move, it is unclear if anyone is tracking, managing or pushing to reduce Pierce County’s carbon footprint and to meet its Sustainability 2020 goals. Dicks wrote in 2017 that some of the goals were unrealistic given current realities. Since then, no annual sustainability report has been released.

The county produces environmental education newsletters. Two were published this year. That’s down from monthly editions in 2018. December 2016 was the last time a post was made on the Office of Sustainability’s blog, and June 2018 for Sustainability 2020’s blog.

Dicks did not respond for comment.

“We don’t have anyone tracking that plan,” County Council member Marty Campbell told The News Tribune in July. “No one person doing that or looking at best practices for electric cars or implementing LED lamps.”

The county believes it’s the responsibility of all county employees to make environmentally friendly decisions, according to Libby Catalinich, a spokesperson for the county. The Planning Department’s crews look at ways to reduce the environmental impact on road and infrastructure projects, she said by way of example.

“We can always do better. There is more focus on that and looking at areas and technology we can implement in our programs,” Catalinich said.

Asked if it was enough to have sustainability on the forefront of employees’ minds, Campbell said, “Everyone should be going more green, but someone should educate them.”

Many of the county’s 2020 sustainability goals likely will not be met. Water and energy use at Pierce County buildings have dropped by 7.19 percent and 17.5 percent, respectively, since 2009, but the goal is 30 percent.

A goal to convince county residents to reduce the amount of garbage they discard daily also is lagging. County residents dispose of an average 3.21 pounds of trash daily. The goal is to reduce that amount to 3 pounds. Rickman said the 2020 goals for waste reduction are not attainable.

The News Tribune’s efforts to find tracking on the other 12 goals were unsuccessful.

Some council members, like Young, believe that there should be a branch of county government tasked with educating the public and seeing that county projects are environmentally friendly and using best practices to reach the Sustainability 2020 goals.

“The reason the job isn’t getting done, is because we don’t have someone whose job it is to get it done,” Young said. “We need a Jiminy Cricket sitting on our planners’ shoulders.”

Young sponsored a proposal in July that would have created the Division of Efficiency and Sustainability for 2020.

The bill failed on a 3-3 vote with Young, Campbell and Council member Connie Ladenburg supporting the measure, and Chairman Doug Richardson and Council members Dave Morell and Pam Roach voting against. Council member Jim McCune was excused.

Richardson took issue with the council’s legal ability to create a new division of county government. Morell wanted more time to study the legislation. Roach said she was leery of the nebulous nature of the bill’s language.

After the failed vote, Young proposed a second bill to address Pierce County’s Sustainability 2020 plans in the Community Development Committee. The proposal would add efficiency and sustainability responsibilities to the Planning and Public Works Department.

Executive Dammeier’s office recommended the provision for deletion, Young said. The bill is likely to die in committee.

Josephine Peterson covers Pierce County and Puyallup for The News Tribune and The Puyallup Herald. She previously worked at The News Journal in Delaware as the crime reporter and interned at The Washington Post.