Chicago Disbands Department on the Environment

By: Jon Sedey

At Wednesday’s special City Council meeting, Mayor Rahm Emanuel revealed his budget plan that asks taxpayers, city workers and aldermen to sacrifice to avoid harsher fiscal problems in the future.

Emanuel’s proposed plan includes hitting up visitors and suburbanites for more money, closing three police stations, cutting library hours, overhauling garbage collection, doubling city water bills and restructuring city departments to cut down on waste.

At the adjournment of the meeting, Emanuel also announced that the Department on the Environment will be broken up by yearend and integrated into existing programs in other departments. This restructure aims to reorganize environmental and sustainability services within the city and meet the tough financial challenges of a city deep in debt.

Chief Sustainability Officer Karen Weigert confirmed the shutdown and said that new eco-friendly measures contained in the budget will contribute toward a more holistic sustainability effort within the city government.

The reorganization is expected to save the city approximately $3.6 million, in part from layoffs. The current department has a staff of about 60 where 48 will be relocated to different departments and 13 will be laid off. The relocated staff members will be absorbed by the departments of General Services, Public Health and Transportation.

“We are moving things around, but this is a strategic move to elevate and embed sustainability into everything we do in the city of Chicago,” said Weigert. “The 2012 budget also calls for new environmental-related measures within city services that will help raise revenue and cut expenses, as well as demonstrate Emanuel’s commitment to the Environment.”

Among these measures: a $2 to $5 congestion fee added to downtown parking garages and lots that aims to raise $28 million to reinvest in much needed public transportation infrastructure; a water and sewer tax to replace 900 miles of old pipelines and create 18,000 jobs and the installation of energy-saving lighting throughout the city streets.

Peter Nicholson, executive director of the Foresight Sustainable Business Alliance and Foresight Design Initiative, was not surprised by the city’s move.

“In many ways, it makes sense,” said Nicholson. “One of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s accomplishments was seeding diversity of city sectors with sustainability-minded administrators. Integrating these functions can be seen as a sign of progress.”

Weigert is not concerned about the transition. “Every department will be looking for innovative ways and new opportunities to make sustainability a major part of the way they do things.”

Photo: Daniel X. O’Neil

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