Renewable Energy Credit money wasn’t the only thing split when city council members voted to rebate about $2.2 million to electric utility ratepayers and put nearly $400,000 in an energy conservation and efficiency fund.
The June 20 vote for an 85-15 percent split also divided council members and the public.
Money from the credits — pollution offsets sold to out-of-state utilities allowing them to comply with stricter environmental standards without actually reducing pollution — was the subject of extensive discussion and several packed public hearings over the last year.
However, the proposal by councilman Kelley Singleton wasn’t on the agenda before being voted on and only a handful of people attended the meeting. The vote was 4-2 with Singleton, council president Ron Rimbert, and council members Scott Broadwell and Sharon Soucy voting yes. Council members Bryan Burgess and Linda Slocum voted no. Councilwoman Sharon Pearson was absent.
Singleton on June 6 cast the deciding vote in a 4-3 decision against the split. He said he needed more information about how the 15 percent that went into the Oberlin Municipal Light & Power System’s sustainable reserve fund was spent. His reversal and the lack of notice about the vote left some residents saying they were blindsided.
“People are outraged and frustrated,” said Matt Adelman, planning commission chairman and an advocate of investing most of the money in conservation and efficiency initiatives.
“I thought it highly irregular,” said Sean Hayes, executive director of the Oberlin Project, a city/Oberlin College economic and environmental initiative. “We just allocated $2.2 million and the motion was made by someone who had asked for increased communication, improved process, and transparency. “
Pearson said she was in North Carolina on family business when the meeting was held. She voted against the split on June 6 and said she received an email from Singleton saying he planned to make the proposal about two hours before the June 20 meeting.
Pearson conceded if she’d been at the meeting, the vote would’ve been 4-3 for the split.
Nonetheless, Pearson said she would’ve liked to have had a chance to vote. And she said residents would’ve liked to have known in advance.
Pearson said she believes in transparency in public processes. “It was completely skipped in this instance,” she said.
Singleton said he changed his mind about wanting to delay a vote because the outcome wasn’t going to change. And increasing public access and promotion of the reserve fund wouldn’t happen until the split was approved.
Singleton said council can now work on scheduling when the rebates will begin and establishing a “choice fund” allowing ratepayers to contribute their rebates into the reserve fund.
The vast majority of speakers at the hearings favored reinvestment in conservation and energy efficiency programs. They noted average annual rebates for residential customers are only about $90 and will expire after three or four years. Commercial users such as Oberlin College and the Federal Aviation Administration and Kendal at Oberlin — which plans to send its rebate to the reserve fund — would get the most money.
Singleton said the public hearing comments weren’t reflective of most Oberlin ratepayers outlook. He said many have told him personally or in emails that they wanted all or most of the money rebated.
Singleton said the credits are a complicated issue that has been “twisted” and “mis-communicated,” but he believes ratepayers were overcharged to meet Oberlin’s commitment to clean energy.
Steve Dupee, Oberlin Municipal electric director, has said customers paid an extra $1.8 million between 2012 and last year for renewable energy rather than buying coal-generated electricity.
The rebates will be issued next year as credits lowering monthly bills. Singleton said he hopes ratepayers send the rebates to the reserve fund, but it’s their choice.
“It’s not my right to say, ‘It’s only $90, or it’s only $7 (per month),’” he said. “You’re not walking in somebody else’s shoes.”
Rimbert, who as council president oversees what items are placed on the agenda, said council members have a right to make proposals that aren’t on the agenda. “Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right,” responded councilman Bryan Burgess, who had sought a compromise 50-50 split.
Burgess said residents and all council members had a right to know a vote would be taken and they were misled.
“They intentionally did not put it on the agenda so the public would be unaware and the other council members, Miss Slocum and I, would be caught completely unprepared,” he said. “It’s infuriating.”
Rimbert, who said Singleton wasn’t pressured to make the proposal, said he agrees with Singleton that ratepayers are entitled to rebates. Rimbert said he’s received about a dozen thank-yous from residents since the June 20 vote.
While council had no legal obligation to return the credit money, Rimbert said it would’ve been wrong to keep the majority of it.
“Is this not America? Don’t we give people choices?” asked Rimbert, who said his family plans to contribute the rebates to the reserve fund. “Or do we just decide we’re going to do what the hell we want to do?”
With 80 percent of the rebates going to commercial ratepayers, Rimbert said Oberlin risked losing businesses if council reinvested all or most of the money. While the college, the FAA, and Kendal can’t move, businesses can.
“Anybody in our industrial park, they can leave tomorrow, which some of them have already done,” he said. “This stuff (profit margins) is very, very fragile for these companies.”
By approving distribution of the credit money, council accomplished one of the top goals set at a March retreat. Another goal was improving relations between council members, which the rebate vote set back.
Burgess said it was understandable that council members could disagree on rebates, but the refusal of the majority to compromise and the way the vote was done created division. He said the timing is particularly bad with council planning to hire a city manager in the next couple of months.
“We have to come together and be of a like mind in hiring a new city manager,” he said. “This is probably the worst time possible that we would face such a division on council.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter