Blog: Jordan Eizenga & Michael Stepniak

Jordan Eizenga
A relative newcomer to the Detroit region, Jordan hails originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan. In April 2011, he graduated from the University of Michigan with dual degrees in mathematics and political science. From there, he progressed to a summer position as the energy data intern at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, where he combines his two geeky obsessions: governance and numbers. Already a believer in the Detroit region, Jordan has turned into a full-fledged enthusiast living in Ferndale this summer, and he looks forward to remaining here to help build a brighter and more just future.

Michael Stepniak
Michael Stepniak is the city of Southgate energy intern, an urban studies major at Wayne State University, and a graduate of Washtenaw Community College. He lives in Detroit and enjoys hanging out with his dog.

Read more about their work at the UniverCities Connection blog.
Jordan Eizenga & Michael Stepniak - Most Recent Posts:

Jordan Eizenga - Push Start: Energy Bills and a Copier Build a Regional Cause

It's four o'clock, and I'm at work. All afternoon I have been hunched over a copying machine making copies of a city's utility bills. My back is starting to get sore, but I'm close to done. However, I know that as soon as I finish I will have to go through the ream of pages I've just copied and reorder all of them by hand. Once that's done, I will page through the entire stack again to enter the information into an online system. The whole process will take most of three days. I know because I've done the same thing multiple times already. And I still have several more cities' data to collect.

And yet, I was thrilled to get that stack of bills.

Why? The answer is not in the details, but in the end goals. So let's back up to look at what I've been up to.

For the past three months, I have been constructing a database of energy usage by city governments in metro Detroit. When complete, it will house records of municipal energy use—everything from city halls to streetlights to parks—in one central location. This database is crucial to the success of the Millennial Mayors Congress' Energy Protocol, a voluntary regional initiative obligating cities to reduce municipal energy use 25% below 2005 levels by the year 2015. Naturally, one of the first steps must be to figure out how much energy they used in 2005 and how much they use now. For this, we need data.

The uses of the database go much further than this. It will make data available for local energy policy projects of all varieties. In its incomplete state, the database has already been used to evaluate the effectiveness of energy efficiency improvements in Madison Heights municipal buildings. It is currently finding its way into climate policy reports for the cities of Hazel Park and Southgate. Plans are underway to use it to create efficiency audits by the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office. As the database progresses, we can easily imagine comparative work between cities as well. This kind of work is the real meat of environmentalism in local policy.

But as exciting as these projects are, I will confess that they are not the only reason I was so happy to get those bills. Another reason is that it took me almost a month to get my hands on them—and this is the main challenge in my work. In the face of declining revenues and rising expectations, city governments are stretched to capacity as is. Most have difficulty adding any more responsibilities, so even something as simple as pulling a box of records out of storage can become a major disruption. At the same time, such a situation illustrates precisely why my work is necessary. Cities need to have a long-term outlook and a grounded approach to policymaking in order to maintain fiscal health, and this database provides both. Energy efficiency, after all, is a great cost-saver in addition to making good sense for the environment.

Such balancing acts are part and parcel to local governance in the region. Cities have risen to the challenge admirably, but there is a limit to how much they can achieve just through working harder and better on their own. This database provides an additional option: regional cooperation among cities. By manning the photocopier, I embody regionalism in action. Would the creation of this database be possible without the involvement of regional bodies like the Millennial Mayors Congress and the Regional Energy Office? Would it take the form it has now? Probably not. Thanks to these organizations and my time at the photocopier, we chug forward. And in time, regional information sharing will lead us into a more prosperous and sustainable future.

Michael Stepniak: Inside Southgate

Working in the city of Southgate through the UniverCities Connection internship program has been an education. It is a constant source of irritation that 18 tasks are always in need of juggling. It is also exhilarating, and possibly addictive. Sounds sick, right? But there's never a dull moment here.

Much of the work is invisible, and yet vital. A typical day could consist of going through lines of city contracts and filling out spreadsheets with data outlining benefits, taking notes on zoning codes, and going through dusty notecards from the '80s to find the Social Security number of a city employee who retired in the '70s because someone entered it into the computer wrong in the '90s.

Today, I will be proofreading and formatting the new city budget. Then I will copy it and put it together into books. I have been informed that no matter how it looks, we will get complaints about some aspect of the formatting. On Friday, I found a missing line in a contract that could be a potential hang-up for an initiative in the works, so after making the budget books, I will be looking through the past thirty years of contracts for said missing line. If I have time, I will then pick one of three spreadsheets to chip away at.

City government is the sum of many tiny jobs, all of which must be done. The budget must be made into little books. A retiree's Social Security number must be entered correctly in the health care system. Regionalist policies and money-saving policies must be implemented, and to do so, someone must fill out spreadsheets with the relevant data and do the policy research. (Southgate happens to be a particularly energy-conscious place: several buildings have solar panels, City Hall has transitioned to energy-efficient light bulbs, the city purchased an electric car, and city officials aggressively pursue grants to further their efforts.)

It is one thing to live in a major metropolitan area. It is quite another to attempt to understand what makes it one. Cities, in my opinion, are our most fascinating human construct, and my time in Southgate has been instructional as to what I have come to think of as How Things Work. It's all pretty fantastic, if you ask me.

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