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Green Building News

In Some Areas, Weatherization Struggles Out of the Gate

While most states and local agencies have their funds in hand and workers in the field, others are working things out more slowly

There is plenty of political-pundit debate about whether the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is actually stimulating the economy as intended. The drift of many of these conversations tends toward yes, it’s helping, but it’s not yet clear we’re getting enough bang for the buck.

What is clear, though, is that it could be quite a while before we can fairly determine the merits of any of several stimulus programs, including the approximately $5 billion being distributed over the next two years to states for weatherization. No question jobs have and will continue to be created through the program, and more homes than ever before will be made energy efficient. But the bureaucratic machinery designed to make it all happen has in several cases struggled to operate smoothly. Some of the snafus are tied to confusion about rules for setting wages for weatherization workers, some are simply a byproduct of state and local agencies trying to be extra careful to abide by program requirements.

A cautious approach to wage rates

In Western Illinois and Northeast Missouri, for example, some agencies were uncertain about whether wage rates for weatherization workers should be based on Davis-Bacon Act rules, which require that rates equal prevailing wages for local for public works projects.

Becky Pruden, executive director of the Two-Rivers Regional Council in Western Illinois, told the Quincy Herald Whig a couple weeks ago that months of confusion and contradictory rulings by federal agencies have kept the stimulus money from being spent by her agency.

Pruden did add, though, that once the wage-rate issue is clarified, Two-Rivers Regional Council likely will weatherize 240 homes over the next year, a 180% jump over the 85 it did last year.

Similarly, the North East Community Action Corp. in Northeast Missouri, which expects to weatherize 1,000 or more homes with the stimulus money, is dealing with Davis-Bacon wage-scale uncertainty in three of the 12 counties it operates in. So work is progressing in the remaining nine counties.

Uncertainty over the applicability of Davis-Bacon also kept managers at community-service agencies in Idaho and Michigan from spending stimulus funds, as news sources noted last week. But federal officials say they have been unequivocal in their requirements for spending stimulus money.

“Davis-Bacon prevailing wage rates for residential construction exist in just about every part of the country, therefore, any state or community-action agency could have begun work as soon as they received their funds by paying these existing prevailing wage rates,” Tom Markey, a stimulus coordinator at the U.S. Department of Labor, told the AP.

In upstate New York

In other parts of the country confusion seems to stem from failures in communication between consumers interested in energy efficiency improvements and local agencies that are administering weatherization work. A story published this week in the Watertown Daily Times notes that many local weatherization agencies in upstate New York – the “subgrantees” that will receive federal stimulus funds from the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal – are still waiting for the money. DHCR says the money is expected to be released in the next two or three weeks. Local agency executives say they are anxious to put it to work before the cold weather kicks in, but they also understand the need for the state to supervise spending carefully.

“On one hand, it’s kind of frustrating because we want to get people working on these homes, but I understand the need to really make sure all their ducks are in a row before they release the funding and approve the contracts,” Scott P. Mathys, chief executive officer of Lewis County Opportunities, told the paper.

In the Volunteer State

In the Knoxville, Tennessee, area, the federal money is in place and program administrators and weatherizers are busy, but communication failures between local agencies and consumers interested in energy efficiency improvements have created a few hectic moments for people in both camps.

The daughter of one elderly Knoxville resident complained to the Knoxville News Sentinel that her 79-year-old father, who had applied for weatherization assistance almost eight months ago, was given misinformation about his application while local program administrators awaited final details about how funds were to be spent and who would qualify for assistance.

“They should have had this in place, and they should have been working on an action plan to help these poor seniors,” she told the paper. “It just seems like it’s going to take a lot of red tape and they don’t have their act together.”

It turns out that the man didn’t qualify under the program’s earlier income requirements, so his application was held in anticipation that he would qualify under stimulus program rules. He did eventually qualify and finally received a home audit. The recommendation: more insulation in several key areas of the home, and new doors.

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