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Sustainable Pittsburgh uses survey to help municipalities evaluate policies

| Monday, May 19, 2014, 12:31 a.m.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Jim Rzeczkowski, of Harrison, checks on the strawberry plant in his raised garden plot at the Natrona Community Garden on Friday, May 16, 2014.

Court Gould is trying to relay a message to municipalities: going green can save some green.

Gould, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh, believes the first step toward that end is completing an online survey developed by his organization.

The overall goal of Sustainable Community Essentials Certification is to make local government officials more aware of good government practices and policies and compare them to what they have in place.

“It helps municipalities to save money, conserve resources and bring efficiency to their operations,” Gould said.

Municipalities that complete the survey receive different levels of certification as a sustainable community, through points awarded for each “yes” answer to survey questions.

Verification of the answers is required by providing Internet links to documents such as meeting minutes and resolutions, photographs and news articles that illustrate the community is doing what it says.

The levels start with an associate designation and then rise to bronze, silver, gold and platinum.

Tarentum, Harrison, Frazer on board

One Alle-Kiski Valley community, Tarentum, has received the bronze certification, while Harrison Township has been granted the associate certification. Frazer Township has started the certification process.

“This sustainability survey tracks ... 130 criteria across nine topical areas,” Gould said. “Those topics include things such as governance and community engagement, healthy communities, education, environmental stewardship, energy conservation, ‘green' building — it is a spectrum of anything any citizen would expect their municipality to be on top of.”

No community in the Pittsburgh region has attained platinum status.

Nine have received gold certification and nine are at the silver level.

In addition to Tarentum, two other communities have earned bronze certification and three have joined Harrison at the associate level.

“The intent is to bring recognition where it is due: to municipalities that are high performers,” Gould said. “Sustainable Pittsburgh is really helping the public to evaluate the job their local government is doing.”

The survey forms completed by each municipality are available at Sustainable Pittsburgh's website for municipal officials and the general public to review.

Gould said that's important because it can help make a road map for municipalities to follow in improving their sustainability, and in turn, their certification, by looking at what those with higher certifications are doing.

It can show the way to help communities save money, he said, by engaging in different conservation practices such as recycling.

Faith Payne, Harrison's executive secretary, sees the value of using the survey “to get some ideas on what some other places have done.”

Payne believes it can generate positive public relations, but otherwise, “I don't see any other benefit for us that I am aware of.”

Gould disagrees. He points to Monaca in Beaver County, one of the communities that earned gold certification, as an example of where the process has shown greater benefit.

“In Monaca, they have won some national competitive grants for brownfield sustainability and economic development,” Gould said.He said it's because Monaca officials use the principles of sustainability to guide brownfield development and they are “woven into their grant-writing approach.”

Tarentum manager Bill Rossey did not return calls seeking comment. In a news release announcing Tarentum's certification, Rossey stated, “We are pleased to be recognized and be a part of the regional community of good government.”

Lori Ziencik, Frazer's township manager and a township supervisor, thinks the survey serves a good purpose.

“I think it is an exercise to raise awareness among municipalities, that you should think of these things as you are planning development,” Ziencik said.

But Ziencik and Payne voiced similar complaints about the time needed to complete the survey fully.

Although designed to allow municipal managers to simply click a computer mouse to answer questions, they said providing the verification links is time consuming. Documents to support the ‘yes' answers have to be researched, located and the link provided with each answer. If a document does not exist online, it has to be scanned and then placed on the municipality's website.

“I went back and forth I don't know how many times before I would say, ‘This is enough for now.' ” Payne said.

“I can point to our zoning ordinance for a lot of this, but they want a web page that you can refer to,” Ziencik said. “I have way too many other things to do right now. It's just time consuming.”

Yet, Ziencik said she will continue to work on the survey whenever she finds some time and will complete it.

Gould said Sustainable Pittsburgh recognizes that a lot of municipalities are overworked and understaffed, which can make completing the survey more difficult.

But he said the organization can provide some assistance.

“At Sustainable Pittsburgh, we have interns who we will have go out and help them with this,” Gould said. “If they hand us the documentation, an intern can scan it for them. So, we are willing to do some hand-holding on this.”

Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or tyerace@tribweb.com.

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