On a tie vote Monday night, the Decorah City Council rejected a request from the Winneshiek Energy District (WED) for a second year of city low to moderate income (LMI) funding.
With a vacancy in the Ward 2 position on the Council, the vote was three-to-three with Council members Gary Rustad, Paul Wanless and Randy Schissel voting against the request and Rachel Vagts, Carolyn Corbin and John Franzen voting for it. Julie Fischer, who had to vacate her Ward 2 seat on the Council earlier this month after moving out of her ward, previously had voted in favor of allocating LMI funding to the WED.
A non-profit corporation, WED's mission is to promote sustainable energy use at the local level, increasing household financial security and local economic development and reducing environmental impacts. Over the past year, WED received $48,000 in LMI funding paid in four quarterly installments.
The city's LMI Commission recommended the Council approve WED's request for $38,000 to fund a one-year project to install energy efficiency measures and reduce energy costs in at least 65 LMI Decorah residences. About 35 percent of the money generated in the city's tax increment finance (TIF) districts must be set aside for LMI projects in Decorah.
"It's democracy in action," WED Director Andy Johnson said of the Council's decision after the meeting.
"This shouldn't be about the energy district as an organization: it should be as any other program that gets funded or not and whether it is effective in doing what it's supposed to do," Johnson said. "In our first year (of LMI funding) we did everything we said we were going to do and more."
Corbin made a motion to approve the LMI funding. During a discussion, Rustad and Wanless said they'd voted both for and against the funding during the previous four votes on LMI funding for the WED.
Rustad said when he voted in favor of the request, he didn't receive any positive comments from his constituents, only "a lot of disappointed comments." Approving the request is duplicating services already being provided in the community, he said.
Rustad said all requests from non-profit groups should come at the same time when the city is preparing its budget early in the year.
Wanless said he has the same concern he's always had. When WED was originally established and applied for a federal stimulus grant, which the city sponsored, he said the Council was told WED would never cost the city money. But when the grant expired after two years, WED made a request for money through the city's general fund, then the city's LMI fund, Wanless said.
While WED's request for 2013-2014 is less than for the previous year, Wanelss said minutes from the LMI Commission meeting and Council minutes indicate WED intends to keep asking the city for money.
Johnson said WED's direct install program, which uses Green Iowa AmeriCorps volunteers to install efficient lighting showerheads, faucet aerators, air sealing and thermostat programming, isn't offered by anyone else. He said WED also collaborates with agencies such as Northeast Iowa Community Action Corporation on projects. He noted NEICAC is often "strapped" because it serves seven counties in Northeast Iowa. He also said there would eventually be less demand for the services WED provides with LMI funding and that his agency would not be "coming back year after year" for those funds.
Corbin said WED helps LMI households reduce energy bills, keeping money local that would otherwise be spent outside the county.
Vagts said LMI housing needs to be as energy efficient as possible. She said WED has been "very successful" in its efforts.
"There are still households that could receive these services ... it has immediate impact on households and families in this community who are struggling. I feel very passionate about this," Vagts said.
Dean Thompson, a member of the LMI Housing Commission, told the Council with last year's LMI funding, WED exceeded its goals and targets for households served in a "cost effective manner."
"Now the WED returns for additional funding from the city's tax increment finances, asking for about $38,000, 20 percent less than last year, with reduced administrative costs, but projecting measurable outcomes nearly equaling last year's estimates of energy savings and number of served households," Thompson said.
He said the LMI Housing Commission's recommendation to fund WED is consistent with city code, which requires the Commission to allocate "direct assistance to low and moderate income families."
After the meeting Johnson said the LMI funds do not make up the bulk of WED's budget.
"We will continue to operate ... we hope to continue working with the city," he said.