AUSTIN - Texas has spent $3.7 million to weatherize just 47 homes through December under a program set up by Congress a year ago in economic stimulus legislation.
This amounts to a taxpayer cost of $78,000 per home.
A little more than $200,000 paid for materials and labor to retrofit the homes, an official said. The remaining $3.5 million was used to grow the state's housing agency so it can attempt to make as many as 56,000 low-income homes more energy-efficient by March 2012.
Top officials for the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, the administrator for the state's Weatherization Assistance Program, insist that with the bureaucratic machinery finally in place thousands of homes will be weatherized this year. Indeed, officials say hundreds more homes were improved in January. Executive Director Michael Gerber has pledged that all the money allotted to Texas will be spent and accounted for.
"Everything about weatherization from the beginning has been done ass backwards," said Paige, who has been following the program from Washington for a year. "The biggest problem with the program is that it is unknowable. Even the infrastructure to track its progress has come months after the money was approved. Whenever there is lots of money swirling around unaccounted for you have opportunities for waste and for fraud."
The Weatherization Assistance Program here and across the country is a laggard, critics say, outstanding even by the standard of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which had been roundly criticized for failing to get money into the economy quickly enough to stimulate it.
Beset by delays, regulatory demands and unexpected administrative and labor costs, the U.S. Department of Energy was criticized by the Government Accountability Office in a Dec. 2009 report for having spent just $113 million, or 2.3 percent, of its $5 billion weatherization fund through the end of September. The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs had through December spent $3.7 million, or 1.1 percent, of the state's $327 million total.
As states like Texas are beginning to learn, the bureaucratic cost of getting the program through its two-year gestation will be counted in many millions of dollars that will not be used to weatherize thousands of qualifying low-income homes.
Gerber said spending more to make sure the job is done right the first time is worth the administrative cost.
"You can throw a m assive amount of money at a problem and say, 'Spend the money as quickly as you can,'" Gerber, pictured at left, said. "There is some pressure to do that. I know everyone expects quick results. But that is not the weatherization program we are running in the state of Texas. We are running a program that is confident in the work we're doing and that is making a difference in people's lives."
STIMULUS MONEY A WINDFALL, WAGE RULES SLOW PROGRAM
At the same time the U.S. Department of Energy, which had coasted for years on an annual weatherizing budget of $225 million, had its own $5 billion windfall challenge, made more difficult because Congress was quite specific about the ways in which the department was to dispense the money through the states, cities and agencies.
The federal and state agencies were being asked to follow accounting and reporting rules the Obama administration called the most rigorous ever devised. Concerned about failing to meet the new federal standard, the offices of the governor and the comptroller insisted on a separate and detailed state accounting.
More crippling to getting actual weatherization jobs under way, however, was a decision by the Obama administration last summer to require contractors to base worker pay on how much other workers in a geographic area were being paid. The Department of Housing and Community Affairs scrambled around the state with seminars to explain the policy and the Depression-era regulation it stems from, the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931. The U.S. Department of Labor gathered data describing the prevailing wages across the country.
The wage rules "were specific to each contractor," Britton said. "We were finally notified last week that everything was in order, but we're actually still sitting here waiting for it."
Josie Valdez, who runs a small remodeling and weatherization company in northeast Austin, said she will be paying at least $2 an hour more to her crews because of the Davis-Bacon requirements.
Valdez remains interested in going after a federal contract, but was told that it may be weeks before Austin Energy issues a list of prices the federal government says she must pay for materials.
"It's been going on for six months already," Valdez said. "And I still don't know yet what the requirements are and what it's going to cost me. I want to know if I can make any money doing this."
MOST HOMES IMPROVED IN NORTH TEXAS IN 2009
Both Austin Energy, which has received the first of two $2.9 million grants, and Travis County, its partner in some of the oversight, expect that with no further delays, contractors can begin weatherizing homes in March.
Forty of the 47 homes that have benefited from the weatherization program so far were improved in November and December by crews for the Texoma Council of Governments, which serves a 15-county region in north Texas.
Texoma crews spent an average of $4,593 on each of 40 units, for a total of $183,720, Susan Thomas, executive director of the council, said. Projects cost from $2,100 to $6,300. They ranged from caulking and laying insulation to putting in heat pumps and new air conditioning systems.
"I'd like to say we have the best weatherization program in Texas," she said.
"I'm afraid it will be two years, five years before we finally figure out what all of this cost us," Paige said. "It's like pushing a whole pile of money into an abyss. We've never sent anyone down there to see what happened to the money before."
Contact Mark Lisheron at email@example.com or 713-980-9777.
Photo of worker adding insulation to a home in North Texas courtesy of Texoma Council of Governments.
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Monday, 02/01/2010 - 04:48PM
Good work! We've got big problems in this big state and the Texas Watchdog is doing a terrific job of pointing out where changes are needed. Keep up the good work. Ken Martin The Austin Bulldog www.theaustinbulldog.org
Tuesday, 02/02/2010 - 08:23AM
Another great Texas Watchdog story! Keep up the good work!
Tuesday, 02/02/2010 - 08:30AM
The wage provision sounds like a winner for all concerned: the contractor gets Federal Contracts, his/her workers get a better deal and the local economy benefits from both! They get $327 million and the author gripes? I don't think I would see $327 million that benefits my community AND the local economy as a burden.
Wednesday, 02/03/2010 - 07:12PM
That's chicken feed. Here in Wilson, NC the Wilson Housing Authority got $7.6 million stimulus to make 68 apartments more "green"! $111,000+ per apartment they could bulldoze the place and build fine homes with swimming pools. Just imagine how many times this is repeated in our country.
Thursday, 02/04/2010 - 11:44PM
Take money from people who earned it and give it to those who did not...how could that be bad?
Thursday, 02/11/2010 - 02:29PM
Ever wonder how companies end up on the approved vendor list for this program? It is all in who you know...
Thursday, 02/18/2010 - 05:37PM
Absolute out and out corruption and B.S. I get sick to my stomach reading about how our government keeps inventing new ways to rob us blind. Take our tax dollars to give to corrupt contractors to weatherize someone elses home. No wonder why people flock here from all over the globe. Yeah, just come to America and all the tax paying suckers will support you,unbelievable f@#$%^g unbelievable.