Council debates federal spending, rejects $220,000 grant
BY MELISSA CROWE - MCROWE@VICAD.COM
March 5, 2013 at 11 p.m.
Updated March 5, 2013 at 9:06 p.m.
other council aCTION
• Approved final vote on the De Leon Street/St. Joseph High School transfer
• Approved final vote to sell Navarro Del Norte, 8505 N. Navarro St., for $1.4 million
• Approved annexing 82.37 acres where the firefighting training tower is and the site of the new wastewater treatment plant
• Approved spending $86,879 for playground equipment at Meadowlane Park from the community development block grant program
Talk about a green-energy grant turned into a heated debate among Victoria City Council members about wasteful federal spending.
Tuesday's vote, which would have authorized the city manager to apply for a $222,000 solar-energy grant, failed in a 2-5 vote with councilmen Tom Halepaska and Paul Polasek voting in favor.
The state comptroller's office set aside $2 million for the competitive Innovative Energy Demonstration Grant Program through the State Energy Conservation Office. The deadline to apply is March 15.
Councilman Emett Alvarez said he intended to send a message to Washington with his vote.
"It's a statement to say: Find a better place to put that to use," he said.
However, Halepaska said the project would have lowered costs for area taxpayers.
"It's going somewhere else if it doesn't go to us," Halepaska said. "We're not fixing the whole country; we're fixing Victoria."
Information Technology Director James Foote, who presented the issue, said he did not expect the negative reaction.
"It's an education grant designed to help the public learn about (solar energy)," Foote said. "It would have been educational for the city as we look at future buildings."
The money would have paid for a 40-kilowatt solar energy system at 700 Main Center.
As he saw it, he said the issue seemed to be the money.
The city would have also applied for a $24,000 AEP grant that would have helped fund the $55,000 match to the state grant.
"It takes a lot of money to have solar," Foote said. "It'll get there. At least it raised awareness."
Foote said he had not heard any negative comments before the meeting about the proposal.
"All we can do is present it," he said. "I wish we had had more time to present this to council."
Alvarez said he could not justify the expense. He voted against the measure with Mayor Will Armstrong and council members David Hagan, Josephine Soliz and Joe Truman.
"This doesn't have that much benefit," Alvarez said. "You're going to light up the parking lot."
He said he wanted to see the money, which is dispersed through the federal government, reallocated to America's classrooms.
He also said energy-efficient light bulbs, which the city has through a partnership with Chevron, would be a better use.
"I don't see the value" of the grant, Alvarez said.
Armstrong said the solar energy panels are a business issue, and that he would not make a decision based upon needing a subsidy.
However, Polasek said the city regularly seeks grants for parks and police officer salaries, which he said were business issues.
Hagan said the grant is a sign of what is wrong with the country.
"To spend $250,000 of taxpayer money, whether it's city or state ... I don't want to see city money spent that way," Hagan said. "I don't want to see state money spent that way."
Halepaska contended that the city council cannot, nor should not, attempt to fix the federal or state governments.
After the vote, City Manager Charmelle Garrett said the grant was a way the city was trying to save energy.
"We're looking toward ways to go green and save money," she said. "We're looking at ways to be energy efficient and reduce our footprint."
Foote said the city could save 6 to 7 percent annually on total energy costs with the solar panel system.
Maintenance would cost as much as wiping down the panels and checking the connections, he said. Their life span is 22 years.
Foote said the city was looking at a five- to six-year payback period on the solar energy project.
Polasek said the grant is consistent with the city's policy to go after grants that benefit residents.
"We have an obligation on behalf of our citizens to go after this," Polasek said. "They put the money there; there's nothing wrong with us asking for it."
While he said he agreed with Hagan's concerns about the federal government, he said he wants "to get as much as I can for our citizens."
"I'm not elected to the federal level, and I don't make policies the federal government makes," Halepaska said. "I'm not elected at the state level. I'm elected to represent the citizens of Victoria, and that project would have lowered our costs."