In some states, the expansion of the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program has put the focus not only on the potential benefits of the stimulus package but on a paradox: big stimulus programs may be intended to reduce unemployment quickly, but their scale and complexity – and the scrutiny they attract – can cause them to unfold very slowly.
One example of that paradox is the sluggish pace of weatherization in Texas, where, by the end of November, only seven homes had been weatherized under the expanded version of the stimulus-funded program. As a recent story on the subject by the Dallas Morning News notes, the tension between the ambitions for the program and the pressure to manage it prudently is long-running.
Federal officials “aren’t excited about where we are today, and neither are we,” Brooke Boston, a deputy executive director at the state’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs, told the paper. The agency is scheduled to receive a total of $327 million for WAP services (55 times more than it usually receives annually) and aims to weatherize 56,000 homes by March 2012. About $1.8 million of the first allotment for Texas, $163 million, has been spent so far, mainly on administrative costs.
Like herding cats
At least one source of delay in Texas – confusion over the DOE’s prevailing-wage rules for stimulus-funded weatherization work, as set forth in the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act – has afflicted agencies in several other states, including Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Some of the state’s community action agencies complain that the housing department has been slow to replace staff and complete administrative work. Federal officials also have been blamed for creating abundant restrictions and complex guidelines for program development and monitoring. Basically, though, most of the WAP’s bureaucratic frustrations stem from tremendous pressure to manage government funds carefully.
“No one wants to make mistakes,” Bob Scott, director of weatherization services for the National Association for State Community Services Programs, told the Morning News. “They are trying to balance the need to show results quickly with the concern that there is increased scrutiny and accountability.”
Longtime watchdog groups and others tracking stimulus-funded programs probably aren’t surprised that the WAP expansion has, in several markets, taken so long to get in gear. It’s a bureaucracy, after all, that ballooned from small and obscure to pretty big and high-profile with the stroke of a pen. Though there still are no guarantees, WAP’s lagging performers most likely will finally bust out of the blocks in 2010, allowing the expansion’s merits and flaws to be assessed more fully.