Will the next Mayor prioritize or destabilize Philly’s sustainability goals?
While the Office of Sustainability is here to stay, the next mayor can impact its efficiency. Here’s what you need to know.
Since Mid-September, the 2023 Philadelphia mayoral race has expanded to nine Democratic candidates, including a state representative and local business owners. Regardless of who wins, Philly’s next leader will affect environmental policy in the years to come.
Although the Office of Sustainability is here to stay, the mayor can shape its operations and goals.
The background refresher: Mayor Michael Nutter created the Office of Sustainability (OOS) after his January 2008 inaugural address, when he pledged to make Philadelphia the ‘Greenest City in America.’ The OOS developed Greenworks, an ambitious plan to fulfill his promise and set fifteen green targets to accomplish by 2015. This program, updated in 2016, is still in effect today.
The Office became a chartered department in 2015 after a ballot initiative to amend the City Home Rule Charter. The only way to dismantle the Office of Sustainability is by ballot initiative to reverse the 2015 changes establishing the OOS. However, the charter amendment only provided for the Office and the Director of Sustainability, not any additional staffing or funding.
TL;DR: The mayor, in collaboration with City Council, sets the budget and size of the OOS. So, the department size could change drastically while staying within the bounds set by the charter.
Current Sustainability Goals
Philadelphia’s current sustainability priorities are challenging ones. By 2030, the city aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the City’s built environment by 50 percent, lessen its energy use by 20 percent, and generate or purchase 100 percent of all electricity from renewable resources. Philadelphia has also pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050.
To reach these marks, the OOS will need to be funded properly.
The mayor determines the city’s objectives, takes disbursement requests from the individual departments, and presents a proposed budget to City Council each spring. City Council holds hearings with the departments and can negotiate changes to the final budget.
Sometimes, that can mean increasing what the initial proposition allots. In the fiscal year 2022, for example, Kenney proposed a $1.37 million budget for the OOS. The actual adopted budget gave $1.57 M to the OOS, an increase of around $200,000. But City Council could also reduce the funding since the Home Rule Charter dictates that Philadelphia must enact a balanced budget. For example: in that same FY 2022 proposal, Kenney suggested an allocation of $112.49 million for the Office of Innovation and Technology, but the adopted budget included only $110.12 million for that division.
Months of negotiations between the initial outlines and the final adopted budget render the final amount of funding. According to data from the Controller’s Office, the difference between the proposed and enacted budget is less than ten percent for the majority of City departments. The Office of Sustainability saw an increase of 15% from the FY 2022 proposed to enacted budgets, and 26% from the FY 2023 proposed to enacted budgets. While the mayor does not unilaterally dictate the amount that the Office of Sustainability receives, he or she has a strong influence over the priorities of the office and the general structure of the budget.
How can the city budget affect the Office of Sustainability?
Dominic McGraw heads the OOS’s Energy subdivision and joined the Office of Sustainability at the beginning of Kenney’s administration.
McGraw acknowledges the financial challenges and considerations to accomplishing Philly’s lofty desires, especially when current events intervene to raise prices. “We are focusing on trying to keep costs in line, with the war in Ukraine and the global energy crisis that we are experiencing,” said McGraw, “but then at the same time … we want to do things that will help us long term to not be in this position in the future when possible.”
A look at the budget hearing testimony demonstrates which goals the Office of Sustainability is focused on for the next fiscal year. Christine Knapp, the then-Director of the OOS submitted a written statement to the Philadelphia City Council for the fiscal year 2023. The plans highlight the carbon neutrality goal by 2050 and the city’s zero waste goal by 2035, but not the 2030 goal to utilize 100 percent renewable electricity. This omission may be due to viability, as McGraw reports that some OOS objectives are easier to realize than others. McGraw noted that “The 2030 municipal greenhouse gas goal of 50% reduction is absolutely achievable and we’ll be achieving it very soon, very early in our timeline.”
In contrast, he explained “the [100 percent] renewable electricity goal by 2030 is a little tougher,” due to the pandemic and supply chain issues, particularly the shortage of transformers needed for solar panels. This might explain why the FY 2023 budget focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and food waste.
Overall, McGraw would like to see a greater focus on renewable projects. “I could see us … incorporating more rooftop solar in some of our assets, but … large offsite solar projects would probably be the biggest thing, and then a lot of energy conservation projects.” He explained, “If you think about where we are right now with the pandemic and how office spaces are being used, there’s a lot of flexibility we can have in modernizing our buildings … to do hybrid work and that will have a big impact on our energy portfolio.”
As of January 2023, none of the mayoral candidates have announced their plans regarding the Office of Sustainability. In fact, none of the nine candidates address any environmental issues on their websites. Amen Brown and Rebecca Rhynhart discuss trash collection efforts and Allan Domb mentions converting vacant lots to green spaces, but no other candidate speaks to any environmental concerns.
In the weeks and months leading up to the election, Philadelphia voters can and should let these candidates know their concerns for the environment and push the candidates to express their own visions and plans to make Philadelphia the ‘Greenest City in America.’