ENERGY POLICY:

Mayors scramble to preserve block grant funding

While the effort has been criticized in the past for administrative delays and bureaucratic confusion, several U.S. mayors have nothing but praise for the Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program.

In fact, much of the discussion at yesterday afternoon's meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Energy Standing Committee involved tactical discussions on how the program can be taken from a onetime authorization as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to an annual part of future federal budgets.

The block grant program provides funding to states and local entities for projects that improve energy efficiency and reduce fossil fuel emissions.

Yesterday, mayors from around the country were eager to share success stories on how the block grants helped their particular cities. Several mayors discussed how they earned an immediate return on the investment by using the money to replace old traffic and street lights with LED lighting. In Urbana, Ill., some of the block grant money was used to put a methane recapture facility in the city's landfill.

Mayor Mike Gin of Redondo Beach, Calif., said his city has already saved "a couple hundred thousand dollars" after using a grant to replace street lights.

But with Republicans talking about cutting upward of $100 billion from the federal budget, getting the energy block grants into the upcoming spending bill is going to be a battle. And what probably won't help the cause is a report issued by DOE's inspector general last August that found that while $2.7 billion of the energy block grant funds had been distributed by DOE, actual spending and job creation had fallen well short of anticipated goals.

As of last August grant recipients had expended $270 million, or 8 percent, of the $3.2 billion that had been authorized for the program in the Recovery Act.

Today, grant recipients have spent $791 million, or about 25 percent, of the total that had been authorized, DOE officials said.

At yesterday's meeting, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu offered his praise and continued support for the program, but he also urged the mayors to both spend the money that had been granted and to submit their receipts to the government.

"I still encourage all of you to invoice as quickly as possible those bills," Chu said. "Don't wait for a month, certainly don't wait for a quarter because we do not want that [authorized funding] rescinded. ... As soon as you've paid the bill, invoice it to the federal government."

Chu also encouraged the mayors to collect precise data on dollars saved and jobs created by the program because he said that is the best way to convince Congress and the White House that the program is worth continuing.

Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, echoed those comments in her remarks to the panel yesterday.

"You all are the best people to make the connection both in terms of what it is able to do for your budget as well as what it's able to for the environment," Sutley said. "I think that we are all in tough budget times and am hopeful that we can continue to work together on these things as we go forward -- but I hear you."

The possibility that the energy block grants may not become a recurring part of future budgets had several mayors concerned yesterday.

Bridgeport, Conn., Mayor Bill Finch told Sutley that he has had to lay off 160 city employees due to recent budget constraints but that the block grants have kept those cuts from going deeper.

"When people talk about eliminating block grants or cutting them ... do they understand that this money can help me keep cops on the street?" Finch said.

Urbana, Ill., Mayor Laurel Prussing proposed creating a nationwide summary of the "real savings" the program created.

"I think we have a story to tell to show how this program paid big dividends," Prussing said.

But there are also a good number of congressmen who won't need any convincing about the worth of the program. Forty members have signed on to a letter that asks President Obama to include $2 billion in the fiscal 2012 budget for the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program.

"This partnership program is exactly what local officials throughout the United States continue to urge the federal government to embrace -- an opportunity to expand on the success of local initiatives to increase energy efficiency, promote energy conservation, expand renewable energy supplies, and create jobs," the members wrote.

At yesterday's meeting, Rep. Chakah Fattah (D-Pa.) -- one of the letter's co-authors and an appropriator who will serve as ranking member of the Commerce, Justice and Science Subcommittee this Congress -- said the energy block grant program is something that should have support across party lines.

"This fits in the Republican mode of operation," Fattah said. "It's local decisionmaking. It's not a one-size-fits-all deal. It's real savings to local taxpayers based on efficiencies that are created."