States awash in stimulus money to weatherize homes

MONTGOMERY, Ala.  (The Associated Press) - Jul 15 - By PHILLIP RAWLS Associated Press
> Writer
> Ready or not, states are getting a tenfold boost in federal money
> to weatherize drafty homes, an increase so huge it has raised fears of
> waste and fraud and set off a scramble to find workers and houses for
> them to repair.
> An obscure program that installs insulation in homes and makes
> them more energy-efficient is distributing $4.7 billion in stimulus
> funds - dwarfing the $447 million originally planned by Congress this
> year and the
> $227 million spent in 2008.
> That is enough to weatherize 1 million homes, instead of the
> 140,000 normally done each year.
> President Barack Obama said pouring money into the program would
> lower utility bills for cash-strapped families, provide jobs for
> construction workers idled by the housing slump, and make the nation
> more energy-efficient.
> "You're getting a three-fer," Obama said. "That's exactly the
> kind of program we should be funding."
> But some worry states won't be able to keep track of the money.
> Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for the Council for Citizens Against
> Government Waste, said the program is open to fraud because of the way
> oversight is divided. The federal government passes the money to
> states, then states pass it to community action agencies, and the
> agencies pass it to contractors who work with customers.
> "It's such a Rube Goldberg operation it should be setting off
> alarm bells," she said.
> Energy Department spokeswoman Christina Kielich defended the
> program, saying the federal government monitors state operations and
> does a thorough review at least every two years of the local
> organizations. In addition, states are getting their money in
> increments and must demonstrate quality control to get more.
> The program helps low-income families take steps to reduce their
> home energy expenses, from caulking leaky windows to replacing heating
> and cooling systems. The Energy Department says 6.2 million households
> have benefited since it began in 1976, saving the average household
> about $350 a year on energy bills.
> In addition to receiving an infusion of stimulus money, the
> program was expanded to cover families making up to twice the federal
> poverty level, or $44,100 for a family of four. Also, the average
> amount that can be spent per house was more than doubled to $6,500.
> The funding for New York is going up from $20.1 million last year
> to
> $395 million. California's share is soaring from $6.3 million to
> $185.8
> million. Virginia's is going up 23 1/2 times, from $4 million annually
> to
> $94.1 million.
> "I was stunned," said Shea Hollifield, Virginia's deputy director
> of housing. "Spending that much money will be a challenge."
> In Texas, the state's share is increasing nearly 60 times, from
> $5.6
> million to $327 million. To spend the money efficiently and on time,
> state officials decided to go beyond the community organizations that
> normally distribute it and route $100 million to large cities.
> "They have experience in administering large, complicated
> programs,"
> said Gordon Anderson, spokesman for the Texas Department of Housing
> and Community Affairs.
> States are hurrying to find qualified weatherization workers and
> caulk-ready homes.
> Wisconsin set up weatherization "boot camps" to train workers.
> West
> Virginia used to give new workers on-the-job training but is now
> looking to move to classrooms and online.
> Alabama plans to train home builders in how to bid for
> weatherization contracts. Russell Davis, vice president of the Alabama
> Home Builders Association, said builders who once had no interest in
> weatherization contracts now see them as a way to keep their crews
> busy.
> In many states, qualified homeowners are already on waiting
> lists. But some states don't have enough recipients signed up.
> "We are out of clients. We need clients bad," said Cade Gunnells,
> weatherization coordinator for three counties in central Alabama.
> To help find them, states are updating Web sites about the
> expanded program and working with nonprofit groups, churches and the
> news media to get the word out. Charles Uptain, a 73-year-old retiree,
> had his Montgomery home repaired in the weatherized program last year.
> His utility bills went down by about $60 a month after workers fixed
> leaky windows, replaced cracked panes, re-taped air-conditioning ducts
> and blew in new insulation.
> Uptain's house required 2 1/2 days of work and slightly more than
> $3,000.
> "This wasn't wasteful spending. This was well-spent money,"
> Uptain
> said.
> .