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San Antonio stimulus program investigated; one of 5 in TX fraught with problems

Stimulus program aims to slow meters like these
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$326m stimulus program in TX
Poor management statewide
11,000 homes weatherized, state claims, though public cannot get details
Thursday, Aug 05, 2010, 11:15PM CST
By Mark Lisheron

State investigators are looking into allegations of mismanagement in a $15 million stimulus weatherization program in San Antonio after the director of the program was forced to step down.

This brings to five the number of weatherization programs being looked at by Department of Housing and Community affairs officials for administrative breakdowns, including a $5.6 million weatherization program in Abilene that has been shut down for months with no idea when the work might begin again.

Department investigators came to San Antonio at the request of Gloria Arriaga, executive director for the Alamo Area Council of Governments, who last week placed Rose Jackson, her housing director and head of the Weatherization Assistance Program, on administrative leave. Arriaga told officials she suspected administrative mismanagement and asked the state for a complete audit of the weatherization program's books. 
Texas Watchdog left a voicemail Thursday afternoon for a Rose V. Jackson in San Antonio, and we'll update this story if we hear from her.
 
"Staff did travel to San Antonio to meet with (Alamo council) officials at the request of the local agency," department spokesman Gordon Anderson said Thursday. "That review is not complete, and the department is not yet at a point where we are able to draw any conclusions. (The department) and its network of service providers have to get it right. There are no alternatives."
 
The program in San Antonio, one of the biggest in the state, will continue weatherizing homes as the review continues, Anderson said. In only one of the 44 stimulus programs directing contract work for the $326 million Weatherization Assistance Program in Texas has work stopped altogether. The program outfits homes with caulk, air conditioners, and insulation if residents meet income guidelines.
 
The struggle to rebuild Community Action Program Inc. of Abilene is threatening the weatherizing of low-income homes in the area and may send the federal stimulus money to other agencies in Texas, Michael Gerber, director of the state Department of Housing and Community Affairs, said. Gerber ordered the Community Action to stop work after discovering the program was spending six times its allotted limit on administrative costs rather than actual weatherizing of homes. He said Community Action has since replaced its executive director and CFO.
 
In an interview with Texas Watchdog, Gerber said the department has encountered administrative problems with four of the 44 agencies directing contract work for the $326 million state Weatherization Assistance Program. Project Bravo in El Paso, forced by the department to fire its executive director for weatherization in the spring, has not replaced the administrator, although weatherization work continues there, Gerber said.

Department specialists are also working with Tri-County Community Action Inc., a nonprofit doing work in nine East Texas counties, and Community Services Agency of South Texas, a nine-county nonprofit, to fix administrative problems that are threatening their weatherization programs.

"We have spent a lot of time with these organizations and have sent a loud and intense message that administrators need to grab their staff by the throat and fix these problems," Gerber said.

Abilene's troubles may make it impossible for the agency to meet the federal deadline in August 2011 to finish the houses it agreed to weatherize and spend its total. In that event, Gerber said, the money would be wrested from the agency and given to a program that could meet the 2011 deadline.

"Yes, I'm concerned about their program," he said. "Yes, it's going to be a challenge for them to get up and running and expend all those funds."

Considering the huge sums given to these agencies and the heightened levels of regulation and oversight by the federal and state governments, Gerber said he thought the number of agencies in trouble was modest. He pointed to Sheltering Arms Senior Services of Houston, which was 
plagued early on with administrative and workmanship troubles, as exemplary of the willingness of agencies to learn from sometimes pointed criticism from the department.

While Gerber said he was pleased that contractors in Texas have now weatherized more than 11,000 home and apartment units, Housing and Community Affairs is still scrambling to catch up 
from a very slow start. Although Texas received the second largest amount of money for weatherization next to the $394.7 million granted the state of New York, the state has spent $52,558,254, or just 16.7 percent of its total, through the first half of this month.

California, with $185.8 million, continues to lag well behind Texas, but 
Texas lags well behind states with much smaller programs like Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. And while Texas has completed less than a third of the units in its projections, Mississippi has completed 65 percent of the 5,468 units in its estimated total.

"All in all, I'm generally pleased with where we are right now," Gerber said. "Almost all of the agencies we're working with have stepped up to get us where we need to be."

Also reporting:

Abilene Reporter News


Mark Lisheron has written extensively about how the federal stimulus is playing out in Texas. To find all his reports, search STIMULUS at www.texaswatchdog.org. Contact Mark at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org.
 
Photo of electricity meters by flickr user Fatty Tuna, used via a Creative Commons license.

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