A $19,000 allocation to the Winneshiek Energy District (WED) was approved on a split vote by the Decorah City Council Monday night.
The city's Low to Moderate Income (LMI) Housing Commission recently recommended WED's request for tax increment financing (TIF) funds be approved. The Commission is charged with recommending funding for low and moderate income housing to the Council.
WED is a non-profit corporation with a mission to promote sustainable energy use at the local level, increasing household financial security and local economic development and reducing environmental impacts.
Council members Rachel Vagts, Paul Wanless, Carolyn Corbin and Jarrad Walter voted in favor of the WED funding request, while Gary Rustad, Randy Schissel and Jody Niess voted against it.
Council members were divided over whether the services WED provides are already available through Black Hills Energy, which offers residential energy audits for $50 to its customers. WED plans to serve 50 residences with its Direct Install program utilizing WED's Green Iowa AmeriCorps team. Green Iowa AmeriCorps is a community service program operated through the University of Northern Iowa's Center for Energy and Environmental Education.
The $19,000 in funding will be used to purchase energy efficiency materials and supplies for the Direct Install program as well as the "match" that allows the community to have a Green Iowa AmeriCorps team dedicated to the Direct Install program, according to WED Interim Director David Paquette.
Vagts, who serves on the LMI Commission, noted WED revised its previous request for $38,000, which had been endorsed by the LMI Commission but not approved by the Council. She said the revised request is entirely for direct services and does not include overhead costs.
Schissel said it was "curious" WED would provide services for only 50 residences for $19,000 when Black Hills Energy program would cost "only $2,500" to serve the same number.
'Apples to oranges'
Vagts responded that was comparing "apples to oranges" since the services provided are different.
Jim Martin-Schramm, chair of the WED Board, agreed there is a "significant difference" between a Black Hills Energy audit and what WED's Direct Install program does. The team targets and prioritizes low-income households for installation of efficient lighting, showerheads, faucet aerators, air sealing and thermostat programming. This year LED lighting will be installed in the highest-use portions of homes.
Martin-Schramm said the AmeriCorps team also performs blower-door tests, which reverse pressure to locate air leaks in homes. Black Hills Energy does not.
"The reason we do it and maybe they (Black Hills) don't, is because it takes time, then it takes time to plug the leaks ... we return twice per dollar the return as Black Hills does. It's a time-tested approach. There's been a lot of success with local leadership," Martin-Schramm said.
Corbin said in her personal experience with the Black Hills program, an audit is completed and the homeowner is given a report.
"Green Iowa AmeriCorps does the caulking and gets the stuff done. That's the hard part. It's great," Corbin said.
In support of the WED program, Martin-Schramm also referred to a letter Northeast Iowa Community Action Corporation Executive Director Mary Ann Humpal sent to the LMI Commission and Council addressing concerns WED duplicates NEICAC's weatherization program and, as a result, should not receive LMI funds.
"Even though we share many of the same goals, the reality is that currently NEICAC is only funded for about 100-125 homes per year, and we have to spread those over a seven-county area. We are also limited to homes up to the 150 percent poverty level," Humpal wrote in the letter.
"It seems reasonable to me that they (WED) provide the Direct Install services to eligible LMI households in Decorah, possibly including those over the 150 percent poverty level. They also may be able to address needs far faster than we can get to them."
Niess asked what WED had proposed with its original request for $38,000 in LMI funds. That proposal included a cost-share program that would have provided more comprehensive improvements to a small number of participants.
"The current proposal eliminates that program and all administrative, occupancy and other Energy District management expenses. It includes only funds required for the Green Iowa AmeriCorps match to host the team, team mileage and funds for supplies to be installed in Direct Install participant homes," WED's funding request stated.
Niess commented WED has had "pretty substantial salaries in the past" and referred to the organization's 2011 tax return, which she said showed salaries of $140,274 divided among three people and stipends for the Green Iowa AmeriCorps volunteers.
Martin-Schramm said that was when the organization was getting started after receiving a $600,000 federal grant. While some of that grant money was used on salaries, the rest was invested locally to leverage a $1 million investment in the community.
"The work and the people doing it live in the community, turning that money over locally," Vagts said.
After the meeting, Paquette said the figure Niess was referring to represented salaries, benefits, taxes and consulting fees for seven people during a time when WED was operating at full capacity with funding from numerous federal and state grants. Currently WED has a two people on staff, both working at less than full time: Home Energy Planner Joel Zook and Paquette.
Rustad suggested the Council schedule a time to hear from representatives of Black Hills Energy, and the rest of the Council agreed that would be a good idea.
Rustad also said the Council should table a decision on WED's funding request, but a motion to approve it had already been made and seconded and the motion on the table was not withdrawn.
Although he'd had some concerns about WED's original $38,000 funding request and voted against it, Wanless said they had all been "adequately addressed," which is why he changed his vote.
Helping LMI families
After the Council meeting, Zook said the Council's decision is good news.
"It's great the City Council has voted to use TIF funds to help LMI families take some steps to lower their energy bills. Disproportionately more of their income goes toward utility bills than do higher-earning households. This program removes all barriers to low-income households for taking highly cost- effective, low-cost steps that can make a dramatic impact on their bills," Zook said.
"We're focusing solely on things that can pay for themselves quickly, most in less than a year in terms of energy savings ... when we focus on low cost, high impact things, it means we can get to more houses."