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Region applauded for weatherization efforts

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

MEADVILLE — For lack of a director, Crawford County’s low-income weatherization program was nearly lost. Two years later, the county program is being honored for having the highest completion rate in the state.

And next week, Gov. Ed Rendell will hold a press conference to highlight extraordinary achievements by the statewide weatherization program, including the praiseworthy efforts of local group.

With a 68 percent completion rate for the past three years, Northwest Pennsylvania Weatherization Inc., which covers Crawford County, is the highest ranking unit in the state for progress of work completed.

The weatherization program is designed to help low-income residents reduce their energy costs by lowering energy consumption. The county’s agency received $3.192 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to spend over a three-year period to help county residents with improvements to reduce energy consumption.

The county has allocated funds for 417 units. Of those, work has involved 307 sites. With work completed at 283 locations, that’s 68 percent of the plan — highest among the 43 agencies providing similar services throughout the state. Others rank from 67 percent down to 12 percent.

Director Kerry Corbett is especially pleased with the results as he reflects on the agency’s recent history. Corbett said in 1988 Crawford County’s community action agency was disbanded and there was no agency to receive funds to help low-income people with energy-saving updates to their homes.

“We were getting short-changed,” Corbett recalled, speaking about county residents. So county commissioners formed a non-profit corporation to be eligible for the government funds that help county residents. Carmen Grasso was hired as director. State officials approved the new plan, and the agency has been quite active since then.

Too many moves
One drawback the agency had was maintaining a central office. It rented space from the Meadville Redevelopment Authority and often moved in accordance with MRA plans — from the former Talon building to the former Avtex building and then to a location on Bessemer Street. Many of those locations worked but weren’t as efficient as they could be because supplies were often stored apart from the other operations. However, the agency managed to function.

All was going well until November 2008 when the previous director quit. As the board prepared to advertise for a successor, federal stimulus money (ARRA) became available.

The problem was the state said without a director in place “you are going to lose the program.” The board explained to the state that it was in the process of advertising for a director. That was on a Wednesday. “If you don’t have one in place by Monday, we’re moving it to Erie,” was the state’s reply, Corbett said. Noting it was not a reality to go through the normal process of advertising, interviewing, hiring and training in five days, the board started looking at other options.

They needed somebody who understood the program and all it involved. Corbett and Paul Pontillo were the two oldest members of the board. Since Corbett had just retired from another job a month earlier, he was chosen to fill the vacancy.

Corbett said one problem the agency had was keeping control of its rent expenses. So the board elected to purchase its own building and property so it could control the costs. The new location is on Franklin Pike and is working well, with stored supplies in convenient access to the operational center.

When Corbett became director, there were four employees under him. Today, the agency employs 17. Among those is Dave Ferlin of Meadville, the finance director, who began as an intern a couple of years ago and will assume the role of director in January when Corbett hands over the reins.

Corbett has no qualms about turning the program over to Ferlin and is happy to “retire again,” he said with a grin. “Our people are doing an excellent job.” The program also receives funding from the Department of Energy and LiHEAP (Low Income Heating Assistance Program) 

How program works
Its role is to assess a home’s energy consumption and then help homeowners identify a means to reduce that consumption.

It is mainly through such things as furnace repairs and education. Funds are allocated to an approximate level of $6,500 per unit. Corbett notes the program is mandated to use the list of possible consumers from state agencies — such as LiHEAP, Department of Public Welfare and other lists before turning to others.

Therefore, people don’t apply to the agency directly. Once the agency receives names of potential clients, contact is made with them to determine if they are interested in having work done.

“Our biggest problem is people think we are a scam,” said Ferlin. The agency will contact potential clients twice before turning to other clients.

All clients must be interviewed through what is known as the in-take process. Diana Schlosser is office manager and does these interviews. “She has worked with a lot of people,” Corbett said, noting Schlosser is a “people person” and does that job well.

After the in-take survey is done, Mike Wylie and another employee go to the site and do the assessment of what is needed. A work schedule is developed and Wylie monitors it to make certain the work is being done. A state monitor also does oversight.

In addition to replacing or modifying heating systems, the program also includes education programs designed to teach clients ways to reduce energy consumption by making adjustments to their way of life. Those reductions could amount to $50 a month, said Corbett. “Fifty dollars a month is a lot of money,” he said, noting that’s $50 the person has to spend on other family needs.

By using ARRA funds, the program has provided jobs to local people. And that could improve in the near future. The agency’s goal is to work on eight homes a week. Currently, it does about six.

Jane Smith
Meadville Tribune