IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The Iowa Utilities Board chairwoman is taking the unusual, perhaps illegal, step of withholding funding from the state's renewable energy research center until its leaders satisfy her questions about its programs and finances.
The move by Geri Huser may violate a law that requires the funding to be appropriated to the Iowa Energy Center at Iowa State University once it's collected by the utilities board. If the delay continues, the center may have to suspend its grant programs and lay off workers. The funding is usually transferred by mid-September.
Huser told The Associated Press she has no indications money has been misspent. But she said she was temporarily withholding $4 million — earmarked for the center from annual assessments on electric and gas utilities — as she pushes for detailed information about its grant and loan programs. She said she hopes for a quick resolution without major disruption.
In a letter Monday to the center's executive director, Mark Petri, she requested that he make a presentation on Dec. 15 detailing how projects are selected and an analysis of results achieved in the past five years. She also requested "copies of program audits and financial audits," but didn't mention the center's funding.
Huser, appointed by the governor in a shakeup of the utilities board last spring, said she has a "fiduciary responsibility" to ask questions as a member of a 13-person council that advises Petri.
"I don't understand how she can withhold funds for any reason," said Gary Steinke, an advisory council member and president of the Iowa Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "I'm asking her to read the law and turn the money over to the energy center as the law requires."
Eventually, he added, "employees are going to have to be laid off. People who come to the energy center for assistance and matching money will be told 'no, we can't guarantee it.'"
Another member of the advisory council, University of Iowa professor Pete Damiano, said at a recent meeting that Huser's audit request "feels like a witch hunt." In an interview, he said the center is already subject to rigorous oversight by Iowa State.
Petri and Iowa State University's vice president for research, Sarah Nusser, didn't return messages seeking comment.
Huser acknowledged it's unclear how long she can withhold the money and what role, if any, the utilities board plays in overseeing the center, which is operated by Iowa State University and governed by the Iowa Board of Regents.
Asked about her authority, she pointed to "a little chart (on the energy center's website) that says the IUB provides the oversight." That chart actually says Iowa State is responsible for oversight after the utilities board transfers funding.
Lawmakers created the center in 1990, to sponsor research and educational programs that encourage energy efficiency andrenewable energy. The center awards grants to researchers for a wide array of energy projects and loans to homeowners and businesses that adopt on-site solar and wind production.
Under Petri, the center has used grants as the required match for researchers who obtain aid from federal agencies and other programs, creating a better return on investment.
Steinke said the changes Petri has implemented since his hiring in 2013 have been "wildly successful" but have faced pushback.
The center is funded through a 0.1 percent assessment on the annual operating revenues of gas and electric utilities. The law says that money "is appropriated" for the center, but it doesn't set a deadline for the transfer. The center is required to provide the utilities board with an annual report, which it did in January.
After Republican Gov. Terry Branstad appointed Huser to the board, the former Democratic lawmaker joined the energycenter's advisory council. At her first meeting in May, Huser said the council adopted her motion asking the center to set aside money to conduct program audits.
At a meeting this month, Huser said she learned the center was instead planning to undergo an internal and external review, which wasn't what she had in mind.