Community Engagement

Recount set for municipalization vote in Iowa city

A Friday recount by the Winneshiek County, Iowa, auditor is expected to officially confirm the narrow defeat of a proposal to form a public power utility, Decorah Power, in the northeastern Iowa community of Decorah.

Auditor Ben Steines said in a Thursday interview his office agreed to hold the recount at the request of a petition signed by 40 supporters of the municipalization effort. Only 28 signatures were needed for the recount into the May 1 referendum in which the vote was 1,385 to 1,380 against creating a municipal electric system to replace longtime power supplier Alliant Energy.

A newly appointed recount board is expected to begin its work Friday morning. Steines does not think the recount will take long to complete.

Carly Hayden Foster, a Decorah Power board member and associate professor of political science at Luther College, a local liberal arts school, said she does not expect the referendum results to be altered by the recount.

"We're not confident it will change the outcome," she said. "But it seemed like the prudent thing to do to make sure it was accurate."

A majority "yes" vote would have enabled Decorah Power supporters to ask the city council to formally petition the Iowa Utilities Board to formally set in motion the municipal's formation.

Under Iowa law, the defeat means municipal backers must wait at least four years before holding another referendum on the issue, she said.

Like other Decorah Power leaders, Foster said the effort was not so much an anti-Alliant initiative as much as a desire to exert more local control over the energy future of Decorah, population 8,500.

Anyone having a complaint with the utility could have had it addressed by the city council instead of seeking redress from Alliant, a multi-state investor-owned utility headquartered in Wisconsin, she noted. "We think that would improve accountability."

In addition, Decorah Power supporters maintained a local municipal utility would save customers money on their power bills in the long run.

Alliant campaigned against the municipal utility in part by claiming it would have cost the city $50 million to acquire the local distribution system from Alliant "and prepare for the first day of service," said Alliant spokesman Mike Wagner.

Study said formation of public power utility could save money

A study from earlier this year by NewGen Strategies & Solutions, LLC found that forming a municipal electric utility could save money for the city's nearly 8,000 residents.

The NewGen study estimated a local municipal utility could save customers as much as $7.5 million annually over what they are paying now to Interstate Power & Light, a subsidiary of Alliant Energy.

Larry Grimstad, a retired banker and president of Decorah Power, in 2017 said he believed that a local public power utility would have a positive impact in several areas including growing renewable energy.

"The ultimate goal is to implement more renewable energy," similar to what Des Moines, Iowa-based MidAmerican Energy is doing, he said.  In particular, Grimstad said the Decorah area is ripe for more solar energy development.