A Sustainable Boise? City Hall Prepares for Its Next Big Steps 

11 ambitious sustainability proposals

Eleven is a pretty good number--a lucky combination of cards at the blackjack table; Apollo 11 made the first moon landing; TV shows Cheers, Frasier and MASH each ran for 11 seasons; Harry Potter made his first magical journey to Hogwarts when he was 11 years old; and, according to the Basque, the No. 11 has the double meaning of "infinite."

And now there are 11 proposals--some of them far-reaching--that have recently surfaced at Boise City Hall, pushing the city one step closer toward an era defined by sustainability.

Boise Weekly readers are already well-versed in City Hall dialogue on environmental themes; but there are still a good many Boiseans who consider sustainability to be an enigma. Others still don't even know the meaning of the word. But the 11 new sustainability proposals, many of which had been a tightly kept secret until they were unveiled April 22, promise tangible and authentic change to the city. Yes, there have been several environmental efforts previously launched from City Hall with some amount of success--the Curb-It recycling program, the Boise River Resource Management Plan, Foothills acquisitions and conversion of streetlights to LEDs--but the new list of 11 intends to weave a more, well, sustainable fabric into Boise's economic viability. Simply put, Boise's sustainability locomotive may not yet be chugging at full speed, but the train is certainly in the station.

"And the process is as important as our destination," said Sara Arkle, community conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League. "Looking back, I don't know if the city would have been able to create a list like this."

Indeed, it was nearly 12 months ago when BW sat down to talk about sustainability with Arkle and Boise City Councilwoman Lauren McLean (BW, News, "A Sustainable Boise," May 29, 2013) in the same City Hall room where the "list of 11" was unveiled last week.

"And if you remember, during our first discussions a year ago, we didn't just talk about sustainability. We talked about it being central to everything we do as a city--focusing on economic, environmental and community initiatives all together," McLean told BW. "These pieces that are being proposed are very important, but this is really about integrating these pieces into all of our decision-making, actions and accountability."

Jade Riley, perhaps the most influential yet under-the-radar public servant in Boise government, usually wields some amount of leverage at City Hall. But when Riley, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter's chief of staff, addressed the City Council, department heads and his boss on April 22, he had their rapt attention.

The setting was an afternoon-long strategic planning session during which he reminded the elected officials to sharpen their pencils for the city's exhaustive budget process for Fiscal Year 2015. The budgeting process is particularly sensitive this year, given the city's need to forge overdue labor agreements with the Boise fire and police departments.

"And the budget process will ramp up pretty quickly in May and we should have a detailed budget proposal in June," said Riley, guiding the mayor and council through a hefty packet of budget proposals--some will make the cut, many others won't.

But that's when things took a turn: Riley pointed to a 13-page document. At first glance, the document looked like boilerplate management-speak, including familiar jargon such as "integrated framework," "additional resources" and "brand definition." But Riley's audience leaned in as he revealed something new: 11 sustainability initiatives.

Some of the proposals, regarding outreach, education or communication with the public, should be no-brainers and require some limited resources. Another proposal would chronicle Boise neighborhoods--beginning with the blocks surrounding Vista Avenue--by mapping never-before-seen indicators (BW, News, "A New Way to Look at Boise," April 9, 2014).

But the real game-changers included:

Transportation--including a soon-to-be constructed multi-modal transit center; the already under way downtown circulator analysis; and a just-submitted federal application for a $150,000 Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (or TIGER) grant which, if approved, would help fuel grand plans to improve State Street (BW, News, "SSTTOP Waits for Green Light," April 13, 2011). Even more transportation surprises are expected on Tuesday, May 6, when officials from Valley Regional Transit will stand before the council to propose significant change to the region's public transportation systems. And those changes are expected to be big: costing anywhere from $150,000 all the way up to $900,000.

Energy--the City Council is being asked to consider the creation of a revolving loan program for commercial and residential retrofits and alternative energy sources. Another ambitious change would be adoption of new energy code.

Food--Boise would identify city-owned parcels of land near the airport and in other areas that could be leased for residential and commercial food production. Additionally, local-sourcing advocates are looking for the city to remove residential food production barriers, such as fence requirements and chicken limits.

Reuse/Recycling--Boise would "up its game" on the recycling front by considering the reuse of construction and demolition waste and expand its current commercial and residential recycling programs.

"From a new energy program and increased local food production to enhanced recycling and better conservation tracking, these initiatives will add breadth and depth to the city's already impressive sustainability efforts," Bieter told BW. "I'm excited."

What remains to be determined, though, is who would be accountable for wrangling all of the different departments and agencies to turn the proposals into reality. Riley said he's looking to hire a new "strategic initiatives manager" to help manage the sustainability proposals. But other officials said they would prefer to shore up the Office of the City Council, with hopes of hiring an additional person to assume some of the responsibilities.

But Bieter doesn't want any of the new efforts to be shackled to a new enforcement officer: "What I'm most fearful of is that when the police department wasn't necessarily in control, we needed to create an ombudsman; and if our P-Cards [city-issued purchase cards] needed more oversight, we had to get an auditor. I really don't want to end up seeing a sustainability ombudsman or some kind of sustainability battalion."

Council members agreed that whoever ends up managing the sustainability efforts is secondary to the primary need to provide unified and formal oversight.

City Council President Maryanne Jordan apologized for the pun, but added, "The only way this effort is going to sustain itself is that it become part of our formal strategic planning from this point, going forward."

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