By Leslee Kulba- According to Asheville City Council’s agenda, liaison Julie Mayfield was going to share an update on the activities of the Energy Innovation Task Force. No staff reports were provided, so nobody had been able to vet her $25,000 ask. Mayfield apologized for not having anything available for the public to see. She had been on vacation and therefore, “This just got done this afternoon,” she explained.
By way of review, Mayfield said the EITF; which is a collaboration of the city, Buncombe County, Duke Energy, and the Rocky Mountain Institute; is charged with (1) reducing power demand enough that Duke won’t have to build a third, 190-megawatt generator at its Lake Julian plant to handle peak power, and (2) reducing fossil fuel burning in general in Western North Carolina. The group has been meeting for eighteen months. During budget deliberations earlier this year, council approved $202,500 for specific initiatives recommended by the EITF.
Mayfield explained she represented council on the board and could not act unilaterally, so she needed a majority on the board to give her an informal indication that the EITF was “going in the right direction.” First, she reminded council how they had supported pursuing a weatherization program for low-income housing, but had not identified a source of funding. Then, over the summer, the city and county partnered to apply for a grant from the Kendeda Fund. The Atlanta-based fund disburses millions of dollars each year from philanthropist Diana Blank.
Kendeda provisionally awarded the city and county $150,000 a year for two years. To close the deal, Mayfield said Kendeda needed assurance from the city that the funding was part of an ongoing, comprehensive commitment to emissions reduction. Council had no problems agreeing to this, Cecil Bothwell explaining the city had already committed to drop its carbon emissions to 20 percent of a FY2001-2002 baseline by 2050.
Mayfield’s next request was for permission to use city staff and channels of communication for a marketing campaign. It would be called the Blue Horizons project and the marketing firm with which the EITF was working was really close to releasing a logo. Mayfield referred members of council to the memo, which was not visible to the public, for information on the actions the project would be asking residents and business owners to take. The program would also be a clearinghouse, listing green activities in the community. Mayfield said for the campaign to be successful, the community needed to see city and county support.
The third request was for $25,000 to fund a program administrator. Mayfield explainead the program had many moving parts, and it wouldn’t be “wildly successful” unless it was somebody’s job to keep track of things every day. She added County Chair Brownie Newman had committed to fund the county’s match already.
In spite of their emphatic and continued commitments to save the world from climate change, members of council were not going to go any further with Mayfield. Reasons may have been that she is working with Duke, an arch-enemy of environmental activists; or that she torqued off community groups earlier this year trying to fund EITF initiatives in a competitive grant process with a limited pot of taxpayer dollars.
Right off the bat, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler said she was not going to approve anything accept the first request without a staff vetting. She needed to hear from the city manager what wouldn’t get done with limited staff time and how much Duke and Buncombe County were contributing. She further wasn’t going to support a budget amendment until she saw how the city’s budget was tracking in its first quarter report. All agreed the $25,000 couldn’t be awarded without a formal budget amendment anyway.
Councilor Keith Young contributed, “I am not a fiscal hawk by far. I am not that guy. But I do have some problems with this.” He asked Mayfield to tell citizens exactly what those activities were that she wanted members of council to call upon them to do. Mayfield replied they would be participating in Duke’s Energy Wise programs. Participants have water heaters and HVAC units fit with a device that cycles them off during peak hours. Low-income households would participate in Duke’s Neighborhood Energy Savers program for home weatherization. These programs have been offered a long time, with few takers.
Young replied, “Duke has finances to advocate for its own programs … I see the purpose in the EITF and the good work that it can do. I just don’t see the purpose of funding a staff person that somehow is going to magically do what Duke can’t do on its own dollar.”
Councilor Gordon Smith asked, “At some point, will there be some sort of comprehensive strategy [for the EITF] rather than us doing this kind of mission-creep style?”