Budget battle energized by potential loss of Energy City

•Money is tight as Elk River enters the home stretch in setting the 2012 budget. Read more here.

by Joni Astrup
Associate editor
Members of Elk River’s Energy City Commission turned out in force Monday night to lobby the council to keep the Energy City program, which is threatened by budget cuts.
“Losing Energy City would be extremely short-sighted,” Steve Rohlf, a member of the Energy City Commission, told the City Council during a joint meeting. “I know budgets are tight right now, but … if you lose Energy City you’re making a big mistake.”
Elk River was named Energy City in 1996, and has been active on a number of fronts including sponsoring an annual Energy Expo and launching the Project Conserve program, which teaches people how to conserve electricity, water, gasoline and heating fuel and reduce garbage.
The city is also home to a number of energy projects such as a wind turbine along Highway 169 and a plant at the Elk River Landfill where gas produced by decomposing garbage is used to generate electricity.
Jack Mowry of Metal Craft said one of the reasons they built their new facility in Elk River was because it is Energy City and they wanted to tap into that expertise to build an efficient building to cut utility costs. He urged the council to keep Energy City alive.
Ron Touchette, president of the Elk River Economic Development Authority and an Energy City Commission member, said Energy City is something that no one else has and can be used to help encourage companies to come to Elk River. While he appreciates the council’s efforts to be fiscally responsible, “we need all the tools in the toolbox to bring more commercial-industrial tax base to our city.”
Vance Zehringer, chairman of the Energy City Commission, said Energy City has an international reputation and foreign visitors coming to the United States through the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program ask to come to Elk River. Some of the energy-related things foreign visitors tour in Elk River are the landfill plant, the wind turbine, the Great River Energy (GRE) power plant and the plant where garbage is processed into fuel to be burned by GRE to generate electricity.
Zehringer believes it would be poor policy to abandon Energy City.
Resident Florence Schuldt told the council she doesn’t understand why the city would want to get rid of Energy City, saying it’s been part of the city’s whole existence for the last 15 years.Resident Lola Driessen echoed that sentiment, telling the council: “Why do we want to go downhill? Let’s go up.”

Threatened by cuts
While Energy City has been threatened by budget cuts, nothing has been finalized yet. The city budget for 2012 will be approved in December.
Energy City’s proposed budget for 2012 is $50,300.
Potentially slashing the Energy City budget has been discussed by the council a couple of times this summer. In a budget proposal last week, Mayor John Dietz said he’d like to cut the Energy City program but salvage Project Conserve and have it managed by Elk River Municipal Utilities with $5,000 in funding coming from the city.
Council Member Nick Zerwas has also indicated a willingness to cut Energy City. He has said the city needs to look at funding the core functions of local government, not extras like Energy City, in these difficult budget times. He said the staff time allocated to Energy City is equal to four-tenths of a full-time employee, or $36,000 of the $50,300 proposed budget.
Council Member Paul Motin, however, said Monday he’s not ready to “pull the plug” on Energy City.
“I think it is good. I think it’s great PR for the city,” he told members of the Energy City Commission. However, he would like to see more grants to help cover costs.
Council Member Matt Westgaard also said he’s not in favor of getting rid of Energy City. The $50,300 budget represents just one-half of 1 percent of the total city budget, he said. He believes that’s a small price to pay to help educate citizens and businesses to be more energy conscious.
But Westgaard, too, acknowledged that the council is facing some tough budget decisions at a time when there’s zero tolerance for higher taxes, and said that Energy City may have to look at how it can do more with a little less.