A Q&A with Buncombe County’s new sustainability officer

WELCOME ABOARD: Jeremiah LeRoy is Buncombe County's first sustainability officer. The position was created by commissioners earlier this month to look at internal and external ways to improve energy-efficiency and cost-savings.
WELCOME ABOARD: Jeremiah LeRoy is Buncombe County's first sustainability officer. The position was created by commissioners earlier this month to look at internal and external ways to improve energy-efficiency and cost-savings.

During their March 7 meeting, the Buncombe County commissioners unanimously voted to create a new staff position: sustainability officer. The new hire would be charged with finding potential energy-efficiency and cost-saving measures across departments while actively seeking community partnerships to foster those goals in other local entities.

Jeremiah LeRoy was appointed to the post and is already busy working with internal and external partners to get sustainability efforts off the ground. Asked about the quick hiring, whether the county had advertised the position and if any other candidates were considered, County Manager Wanda Greene explained: “Jeremiah had worked on our energy issues in the past, and he was a natural promotion to the position. His experience with the county along with his subject-matter experience were the deciding factors. We have to recruit if we fill a position externally but can promote from within based on experience.”

Xpress connected with LeRoy via email to get a better understanding of his goals and what the new position will bring to the county.

Mountain Xpress: Tell us a little about yourself.
Jeremiah LeRoy:
My wife and I moved to Asheville from Texas in 2006, and I started working for Buncombe County within a few weeks. We’ve lived in West Asheville for the past 10 years and have a 5-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. I suppose I am the typical Asheville outdoor enthusiast. I spend most of my free time running, mountain biking or just being outdoors with my family.

How does your academic/professional background prepare you for the role of sustainability officer?
I have a master’s in public administration with an emphasis on local government management. I’ve worked on a number of relevant projects, including administering the county’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant funding. I also spearheaded the initial efforts to track, analyze and report the county’s carbon footprint data, so I’m very familiar with our facilities and fleet portfolio. My work with the county has also allowed me to build productive relationships with many key personnel I’ll be working with in this new role.

Why does the county need a sustainability office?
Buncombe County has always been very progressive in its approach to reducing our environmental footprint. That said, having a dedicated office to keep on top of the latest trends in changing technology and environmental best practices will help ensure that we continue to lead in that area. Another prominent goal of the office will be to assist many of our partner organizations in enhancing their own environmental and energy-reduction efforts.

What does sustainability mean to you?
It’s a broad topic, but for Buncombe County, at least initially, sustainability primarily relates to energy. Improving the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of our facilities and fleet, and working with partner organizations to do the same, will be a top priority. As we begin to reach some of our initial goals, we’ll look to expand the scope of our sustainability initiatives accordingly.

How will this initiative benefit the average taxpayer?
I think it’s safe to say that we all value clean air and clean water, so the environmental impacts of our efforts will have real value for our residents. However, with many of these initiatives, such as the county schools LED project proposed by Alesha Reardon, we can also realize significant cost savings and quick paybacks. Those savings can allow us to more effectively utilize taxpayer dollars for programs and services that we provide to citizens. They can also help offset any potential impacts from rising utility costs over time.

What types of partnerships will you seek out?
I’ve already begun working with the school systems to identify potential improvements we can make to their facilities. I’ve also begun working with individuals from the Energy Innovation Task Force to determine how the county can assist in their efforts. In time, I’d also like to reach out to the many nonprofit organizations that provide services or receive funding from the county and work with them to make some of the same types of improvements.

What are some immediate changes you can implement?
Internally, General Services Manager Clint Shepherd and I have already begun to move forward with a handful of county facility projects that could be implemented over the next few months which could save approximately $30,000 in annual energy expenses. Externally, we’ve entered into discussions with the Land of Sky Regional Council and the state Department of Environmental Quality to produce energy assessments for all Asheville City Schools and A-B Tech facilities. From those assessments, the goal will be to create a work plan for improving their facilities’ efficiency.

What are some longer-term goals for your office?
Sustainability, by definition, means to endure and remain productive indefinitely. What forms this will take will likely change over time as technology and best practices continue to evolve. Our most important goal is to ensure that Buncombe County and its partners stay on the front lines of energy innovation and sustainable practices.

What will be one of the biggest challenges?
One big challenge is continuing to meet our sustainability goals in cost-effective ways. As we complete the lower-cost, short-payback projects, there comes a point where both the financial investment and payback period will naturally increase. As stewards of public dollars, it’s our responsibility to continually look for the most fiscally responsible projects that can also maximize our environmental impact.

What are you most excited about?
Can I say all of the above? This is just a tremendous opportunity all around. I get to work with a variety of terrific people in the public and nonprofit sectors in our community and make a measurable impact to improve our environment. There is nothing not to be excited about!

What metrics does the county have for determining if the sustainability office is making a difference?
We have a terrific business intelligence team that has already helped us set up a fairly robust system for tracking and analyzing the data needed to determine our carbon-footprint reduction: electricity, natural gas, water, fleet fuels, etc. We have the ability to look at point-in-time data to measure the environmental impact, as well as cost-effectiveness, of our various projects and initiatives.

Part of your job is keeping abreast of emerging best practices. How do you do that and, in turn, apply those to various county departments?
This will definitely be a collaborative effort. I’ll be working closely with our general services team and a variety of vendors who do a great job of keeping us up to speed with changing technologies in their sectors. It will also be critical for me to seek out development opportunities with various professional groups, such as the Southeast Sustainability Directors Network and the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association. These organizations exist to collaborate and share best practices across our region. It will be up to us to determine which projects and practices are the most appropriate and cost-effective fit for our facilities and fleet portfolio.

Are there plans to coordinate with the city of Asheville’s chief sustainability officer? What might we see in that regard?
Absolutely. Amber Weaver was one of the first people I reached out to when I took this position. We’ve already had a couple of productive meetings so we can learn more about the efforts that the city and county are undertaking and identify some potential partnerships. What that looks like will be determined in the coming months, but heading into this, I feel confident that the city and county are willing and able to be partners, and I’m excited about the opportunities that will provide.

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About Dan Hesse
I grew up outside of Atlanta and moved to WNC in 2001 to attend Montreat College. After college, I worked at NewsRadio 570 WWNC as an anchor/reporter and covered Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners starting in 2004. During that time I also completed WCU's Master of Public Administration program. You can reach me at dhesse@mountainx.com.

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