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Environment & Science

Advocates ‘don’t have high hopes’ for sustainability coordinator amid Allentown budget limbo

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Allentown's 2024 budget is back on City Council's agenda Wednesday after a veto from Mayor Matt Tuerk.

  • Allentown’s Environmental Advisory Council is fighting for the city to hire a sustainability coordinator, but aren't hopeful it'll happen
  • The city’s 2024 budget is back on City Council’s Wednesday agenda
  • Advocates argue the role would help save the city money as well as bring in more grant funding

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Asked Monday evening if there was hope for a sustainability coordinator position to be included in Allentown’s 2024 budget, members of the city’s Environmental Advisory Council shrugged their shoulders.

“We don't have high hopes,” said Tinku Khanwalkar. “Unless the mayor comes up with something for city council that includes the sustainability coordinator position, and city council says, ‘OK, we'll go with that versus overriding the veto.’”

City council on Wednesday will consider overriding the mayor’s veto of council’s approved 2024 tax-increase-free budget, which did not include the position. If it fails, Tuerk’s veto would stay in place, leaving the city without a budget for next year and sending officials back to the drawing board with another opportunity to add it.

But the measure is likely to pass, members of the city’s Environmental Advisory Council meeting agreed Monday evening. While they still believe the position is sorely needed, it’s unlikely to happen this way.

“It may not be exactly what we want to see here. But that is why we have other avenues and we will keep pushing.”
Maria Ocasio, chair of Allentown's Environmental Advisory Council

“It may not be exactly what we want to see here,” said Maria Ocasio, chair of the EAC. “But that is why we have other avenues and we will keep pushing.”

‘A dedicated sustainability manager’

In September, Conservation Voters of PA launched a letter-writing campaign aimed at pressuring the city to hire a sustainability coordinator to oversee and address environmental justice issues.

The letter, with the subject, “Please hire a dedicated sustainability manager,” includes several paragraphs of arguments to answer why the position is so sorely needed.

Ocasio, who also serves as the Lehigh Valley field coordinator for the group facilitating the campaign, argued that it was time to approve and hire for the role. Without it, the city is missing opportunities to bring more money in from grants and also save money by creating more sustainable policies.

The proposed 2024 budget did include a sustainability coordinator position in the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, with a salary of $66,976.

Ahead of the vote, the city’s EAC submitted comments to council arguing for the position to be funded.

“Based on our own member experiences, and the experience of other cities that have such a position in place, we are confident that the sustainability coordinator will help the city to lower its costs through implementing more sustainable practices and through bringing more money to the city in federal, state and county grants as well as philanthropic sources,” according to the comments, which are posted on the EAC’s website.

A federal infusion

The city in mid-September was awarded a $920,800 grant for tree equity from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service. Allentown’s proposal was one of the 385 funded as part of the more than $1 billion allocation through the federal Inflation Reduction Act.

Easton was also awarded $1 million through the grant program to “expand the city's tree canopy, create an urban forestry apprenticeship, provide trees to residents, parks, and stewards of green spaces, provide better care for existing trees, and provide apprentice training.”

Tree equity, or the measure of healthy, shade-giving trees throughout an entire community, in recent years has become a key part of environmental justice initiatives. The American Forests tree equity map has cataloged the entire country, including the Valley, and found that areas with dense tree cover are more likely to be populated by white residents with higher incomes, and the reverse is also true.

A description of Allentown’s proposal shows funding would be used for urban forest management “with a focus on trees in the public right of way.”

“The proposal includes an updated tree inventory to provide baseline data and identify areas with few public trees, funds to develop an urban forest management and species recommendations, as well as funds to address hazardous street trees through pruning and replanting,” according to a grant description posted on the USDA’s website.

The grant, however, does not appear in the city’s 2024 budget.

City officials are waiting on “a fully executed grant agreement, followed by an ordinance to appropriate money in [the] correct account,” city spokesperson Genesis Ortega said Monday.

In the EAC’s comments to council ahead of the budget vote, members pointed to this grant as a way to fund the sustainability coordinator position.

However, Ortega said, “the award does not include funds for staff oversight. Much of it is for actual tree work and planning.”