Detroit City Charter's New Green Initiatives Raise Questions About Funding, Implementation

During the drafting of Detroit's new City Charter, language calling for green initiatives, sustainable technology and an expanded recycling program generated a lot of public enthusiasm. But with the new charter now in effect as of Jan. 1, concerns about how the financially troubled city will pay for mandated Green Initiatives and Sustainable Technologies (GIST) projects have resurfaced.

During the charter writing process, Hood Research, a local think tank, raised concerns that these newly-mandated services would "handcuff" the city's trash collection policy and force budget allocations that could lead to cuts in police, fire and other services.

These questions are taking on increased relevance under Detroit's current cloud of fiscal insolvency -- a predicted budget shortfall of $45 million by the end of the city's fiscal year in June -- and the threat of a state-appointed emergency manager.

Under the charter, the mayor has six months to study, present and implement a longterm GIST plan. The charter itself offers several suggestions:

The GIST Plan shall be comprehensive and may include solar, wind, thermal and other forms of alternative and renewable energy production and uses; alternative fuels; or other sustainable technologies and endeavors; green public works, construction and building programs; and any other green initiative or technology considered feasible [and] shall incorporate green initiatives and technologies within the workplace and for use with City owned vehicles and property.

The Department of Public Works is also required to "prepare, implement and update as necessary" a comprehensive city-wide recycling plan.

Although the document requires Detroit to put these new programs into action, it is vague on specifics.

Matthew Naimi, the director of operations for Recycle Here, has worked with the City of Detroit to offer drop-off recycling to residents since 2007. He told Huffpost that terms in the charter like "cost-effectiveness" leave the expansion of recycling in Detroit open to interpretation by city officials.

"I'm anxious to see how we move forward in a comprehensive citywide recycling program," Naimi said. "Does it mean a system of drop-off locations, or does it mean curbside [pick-up]?"

Detroit currently offers curbside recycling pickup to 30,000 households through a pilot program in two Detroit neighborhoods, Rosedale Park and the Cadieux/Warren area.

Naimi said he was glad that the new charter spells out a recycling policy, but was skeptical about any major near-term changes to the city's trash collection efforts.

"'Soon' is a vague word," he said. "If you're talking about systemic change in the trash programs in Detroit, 'soon' could be 10 years."

Naimi said he thought a longer-term plan to build a recycling program could be effective, "but if you think we're going to launch a citywide recycling program in the next nine to 10 months, I don't think that's going to happen."

Charter Commissioner Ken Coleman told the Detroit Free Press that the commission had intentionally left the city discretion over the inner workings of new programs mandated by the document.

"We were cognizant of not using language that would lock the city into creating something in full-scale implementation in only 60 days or one year," said Coleman.

Although it's still unclear how the city will pay for the new GIST programs, Charter Commission Vice Chairman John E. Johnson has said the commission took financial questions into consideration while drafting the document.

"We initially thought the cost would put the city in a precarious state financially. We later decided we couldn't afford not to," Johnson told the Michigan Citizen in October, before the charter was approved by a plebiscite in November.

Tonya Myers-Phillips, a charter commissioner and board member of the nonprofit Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, indicated that rather than drain city resources, the GIST measures could serve as an economic stimulus, spurring the development of a green economic infrastructure for Detroit.

"The main challenge was defining these proposals as economic development for the city," she told the Citizen. "There was equal emphasis on economic, environmental and health issues. It's the new paradigm -- these issues are interconnected."