The City of Omaha's office of sustainable development — started by former Mayor Jim Suttle to promote green programs — will shutter its doors at the end of the year, if the city's proposed 2014 budget stands.
The office ran on stimulus grants from the federal government, spending some $15 million over four years on environmental efforts. It was responsible for running Omaha's reEnergize program — an expensive effort that struggled as it tried to make homes more energy efficient.
Under Suttle, the office had operated within the Planning Department.
But with grant money running out at the end of the year, Mayor Jean Stothert decided not to fund the office with city tax dollars.
“In our effort to reduce spending in the 2014 budget and recommend a balanced budget without a tax increase, we were unable to fund this position with general fund dollars,” Stothert said in a statement.
Stothert's move drew some scrutiny Tuesday during public testimony before the City Council on the budget. Supporters, encouraged to attend by the city's sustainability coordinator, argued that the office makes the city better.
“My view, that regional view, is that Omaha loses when it doesn't have a sustainability office,” said Rick Yoder, a sustainability coordinator for the University of Nebraska at Omaha's business school. “It loses to other communities in the region.”
The city's sustainability office was funded through two separate grants, both stemming from the 2009 federal economic stimulus program.
It was started under a $4.3 million grant designed to create jobs and reduce the city's energy costs. The money was put toward replacing the city's traffic lights with LEDs and upgrading 25 city facilities to be more energy efficient.
Those projects reduced the city's energy use by 16 percent.
In 2010, the office partnered with the City of Lincoln to win a $10 million grant to create a market for environmental retrofits. The reEnergize program started out with lofty goals: retrofit more than 3,000 older homes with energy-saving improvements, reduce carbon emissions, and create or save some 300 jobs.
But before long, the goals were scaled back. Some 1,800 homes would be fixed up, and the program reduced its goal for how much it would improve each homeowner's energy bill.
Last year, The World-Herald found that the program had spent only $3.5 million of its $10 million grant with just nine months remaining to spend the rest.
Financial records, obtained through a public records request, showed that reEnergize had spent more than two-thirds of that money on administrative overhead, consulting fees, ineffective marketing and failed contracts.
The office still has a chance to hit its revised target, according to an email that sustainability coordinator Kristi Wamstad-Evans sent to groups that the office has worked with. More than 1,200 homes have been upgraded, according to the email, and “several hundred more” are anticipated to be completed in the final few months of the program.
The program's exact model has shifted over the years, but essentially it offered to help homeowners pay for some of the costs associated with energy-saving retrofits, which could include projects such as installing insulation or a new furnace.
Wamstad-Evans said she was led to believe when she was hired that the position would move to the city's general fund and not be as reliant on grants. But she said she might have been naive about that.
“I possibly would have stayed where I was had I known there wasn't a commitment to the future,” said Wamstad-Evans, who previously was a sustainable program coordinator at HDR Inc.
She also credited the office with testifying before the Legislature, working on the environmental portion of the city's master plan, leading workshops and seminars, helping increase the alternative fuel options for cars, addressing the barriers to solar energy and promoting locally grown food.
“We are very proud of our success over the past three years,” she wrote. “It has been hard work and not without controversy.”
James Thele, the acting planning director, said there weren't enough grant opportunities available to keep the office running.
“We're always hopeful. ... Unfortunately, the federal government is also cutting back,” he said.
While the city will miss the expertise of Wamstad-Evans and her small staff, he said, many of the functions of the office will be picked up by existing Planning Department staff.
On the idea of the Planning Department absorbing her office's responsibilities, Wamstad-Evans said, “I'm not really sure how that's possible.”
Thele said he thinks the reEnergize program set out to do what it was intended to do. While it didn't hit its goals for retrofitting homes, it trained dozens of contractors to evaluate homes for energy use and make upgrades.
“We have what we didn't have before,” he said, “a pool of well-trained evaluators and contractors that will benefit the public for many years.”
It's difficult to measure the reEnergize program's effectiveness at creating a market for retrofits, because the program propped up the market for three years.
“It is now time for the private sector to take over,” Thele said.
World-Herald staff writer Juan Perez Jr. contributed to this report.