in Houston, Texas

High costs, low production, substandard workmanship dog state's stimulus weatherization program

insulation.jpg
Monday, Sep 20, 2010, 03:32PM CST
By Mark Lisheron

Agencies are struggling to account for spending, maintain work quality in $326 mil stimulus program to make low-income homes energy efficient. 'Sense of failure' in nonprofits handling weatherization program, Austin interfaith leader says.

State inspectors found tens of thousands of dollars in unaccounted for charges, substandard workmanship, high administrative costs and low production in more than half of 29 monitoring reviews of the $326 million Weatherization Assistance Program in Texas. 

A Texas Watchdog review of all reports done in June and July by state Department of Housing and Community Affairs inspectors showed 15 of the 44 local weatherizing agencies with serious problems meeting state and federal standards for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act program. They represent $76.7 million or almost a quarter of the federal stimulus weatherization grants, including the city of Houston, whose $23.6 million is the largest single contract.

These programs include: the City of Arlington, Austin Energy, Bee Community Action of Beeville, Brazos Valley Community Action Agency Inc. of College Station, City of Brownsville, Cameron and Willacy Counties Community Projects Inc. of Brownsville, Community Services Agency of South Texas in Carrizo Springs, Concho Valley Community Action Agency in San Angelo, Project Bravo of El Paso, Hill Country Community Action Association of San Saba, City of Houston, City of Lubbock, City of Odessa, South Plains Community Action Association of Leveland and West Texas Opportunities Inc. of Lamesa.

As contractors across the state have stepped up work blowing insulation, replacing appliances, caulking and weather stripping to make low-income homes more energy efficient, the volume of violations has increased markedly. A review of state records obtained by Texas Watchdog for 
April and May found seven local agencies with serious problems. Cameron and Willacy had a worse performance report in May than it did in the first inspection done in March.

On top of the negative monitoring reports, the city of Abilene Monday night dissolved Community Action Program Inc., the agency directing the city's $5.6 million stimulus weatherization program, for longstanding mismanagement. The state housing department is seeking another government or nonprofit group to take over weatherization, or the remainder of the budget will be turned over to other agencies in the weatherization program.

The department also announced that it was stripping the weatherization program with the smallest budget in the state, $451,000, from the Institute for Rural Development in Kingsville. Its small budget was still too much for the tiny nonprofit to handle, department officials said.

Local organizations with an interest in how stimulus money would be spent in their communities are expressing disdain, but hardly surprise.

Bee Moorhead, executive director for the state interfaith group Texas Impact, based in Austin, blames the legislature for not taking responsibility for oversight of the stimulus weatherization, leaving unprepared agencies to fend for themselves.
Bee MoorheadMOORHEAD

Moorhead has also been frustrated at how difficult it has been to get information from the the Department of Housing and Community Affairs to critically assess how well the weatherization program is doing.

"What I think you have at the local level is a sense of failure, a wish that more could have been done," Moorhead said. "While it's not surprising, it has been disappointing."

The reports of difficulties with at least 17 of the state's weatherization overseers is not evidence of a statewide program in trouble but, rather, a program now completing energy efficiency jobs at the highest volume since the program was funded in March of 2009, according to Michael De Young community affairs director for the department. Bureaucratic funding, rules and training delays prevented work from beginning at all until December in Texas.

As it has from the beginning, the department has been heavily involved in training for administrators who suddenly found their weatherization budgets bulging with federal taxpayer funds and contractors whose crews had for the most part not been asked to hew to exacting federal and state workmanship standards before, De Young said.

"I don't think these monitoring reports address an agency in trouble. They are a focus on the quality of work being done by unit," De Young said. "I would say that there are only a handful of agencies in the state that need additional attention beyond additional training. And we've had extensive training in the last few months."

A review of the department's own monitoring reports suggests the training was sorely needed. In its inspection of 24 units weatherized by Brazos Valley contractor crews, state officials questioned the entire $91,920 cost to install new air-conditioning systems in each unit because the contractor couldn't produce documentation to prove the new systems were needed.

The report went on to say that workmen would be required to return to every one of the units to address poor workmanship, including a failure to insulate attic spaces, weatherstrip front doors, seal plumbing openings and patch furnace closets.

Texas Watchdog attempted to contact every agency director whose negative monitoring report is mentioned in this story. Brazos County was among those that did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Among those who did was Randy Kopplin, whose Bee Community Action program has spent months retracing the work done on units that caused state inspectors to question $73,056 in costs for work done on more than a dozen units. The report criticized crews for filing invoices for work that were substantially higher than estimates and going ahead with weatherization without being able to prove the measures offered sufficient energy savings.

Kopplin said his program was just this week lauded by the department for justifying $57,000 of the $73,056 in costs. Kopplin, who said he was reluctant to criticize the department, said local agencies like his have been battered trying to speed along their work under an August 2011 mandated deadline, adhere to strict new rules and make no mistakes. To have what amounts to paperwork errors publicized, Kopplin said, "isn't a slap in the face, it's a punch in the face."

Janet Everheart, executive director of West Texas Opportunities, characterized Kopplin's slap as a learning experience. After inspectors recommended that work crews return to every one of the units they inspected for poor on-site inspections, Everheart said West Texas Opportunities hired a quality control specialist who has improved overall performance.

A couple years ago West Texas Opportunities was weatherizing about 50 homes in 14 counties a year with a budget well below $1 million. The nonprofit has a stimulus budget of $5.8 million and a goal of weatherizing more than 1,300 homes with those funds.

"We certainly welcome the money, but there have been problems, the training, waiting for the money to get started," Everheart said. "I don't think it was anybody's fault. It just happened. We're all learning as we go, even though we've done this for years."

Some who once paid close attention to weatherization at the start have distanced themselves. At the end of July 2009, before a single low-income unit had been weatherized, Don Baylor, a senior analyst for the 
Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin wrote a seven-page policy paper titled, "Texas Weatherization Assistance Program Provides Relief to Low-Income Families and Creates Jobs For the New Economy."

The organization, whose mission statement stresses its commitment to bettering economic and social conditions of low- and moderate-income Texans, has no real interest in following up with a study to see if Baylor's predictions have come true, he said. Baylor said from what little information he has been able to gather, weatherization has not made good on the stimulus promise of getting money into the economy quickly.

"By all accounts it has been slow," Baylor said. "But at the end of the day, I guess, tens of thousands of homes are going to get weatherized." 

Moorhead said she wonders how many thousands of homes may not get weatherized because of delays, mistakes and cost overruns. She finds fault for the rickety condition of the weatherization program from top to bottom with the legislature.

Groups like Texas Impact and the Sierra Club supported a bill carried in the last session by Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, that would have made the state's lawmakers responsible for the goals and objectives of the Weatherization Assistance Program.

The bill was ignored and, instead, $326 million of federal money was dumped on a department that had worked with a $13 million annual budget for weatherization statewide, Moorhead said. "The legislature botched this as badly as it could have been botched," she said.

"At this point I think all you can do is take these lessons back to the legislature in this next session and say if you ever got the opportunity to do weatherization on this scale, you'd be unprepared because this did not go so well." 

Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org.

Photo of insulation by flickr user Jack Amick, used via a Creative Commons license.

Comments
The truth patriot
Thursday, 09/23/2010 - 02:22PM

Where there is money in the government's hands, there will be corruption. That is human nature. So less money, less corruption.

Thr truth patriot
Thursday, 09/23/2010 - 02:25PM

Who is the Brazos County director that did not return your phone calls? Maybe we can get through. ;^)

la rebel
Thursday, 09/23/2010 - 03:18PM

when there is money, there will be corruption, period. hello, wall street??

Sunday, 09/26/2010 - 08:53AM

You should send the Sarah Palin in, she will discover the truth and set everything right again.

stox1994
Friday, 10/01/2010 - 07:29AM

I hope someone has to pay for this corruption with fines or prison time. We are becoming a third world country with bribes and the stealing of taxpayer's money. WHEN WILL IT STOP!

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