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Austin to get $900,000 from state in weatherization money

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The City of Austin is poised to get $900,000 from the state to weatherize the homes of low-income residents, just a few weeks after it lost $400,000 in state money for the same program because of a communication screw-up among city departments.

Austin Energy said Thursday that the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs has offered $900,000 to improve the energy efficiency of homes for low-income, elderly and disabled residents. The City Council will vote on accepting the funding, which is federal stimulus money administered by the state, at its next meeting on Jan. 12 .

Last month , state officials asked Austin Energy if, in a few days' time, the city could be ready to begin using an extra $600,000 in stimulus money available for weatherization. Austin Energy began writing up contracts and put a proposal on the council's agenda for its next meeting.

But a few days later, City Manager Marc Ott dropped the proposal from the agenda at the last minute, resulting in Austin losing $400,000 of the funding.

The loss angered advocates for the poor, who said making older homes more energy-efficient is increasingly important as Austin Energy prepares to raise its electric rates early next year.

A lengthy questioning of city staffers by the City Council revealed that several blips and misunderstandings delayed the vote on the $600,000 offer — including that some city staffers wanted to vet the contracts more carefully because of the concerns of minority- and woman-owned contracting firms that they said they hadn't gotten a fair share of the city's weatherization work.

The city manager worked with the state over the past few weeks to get back the $400,000 Austin had lost and obtain an additional $500,000 , Austin Energy said Thursday .

The state also agreed to extend the deadline by which Austin must spend the money from late January to late March , Austin Energy spokesman Ed Clark said.

"The city should accept the $900,000. It's a great thing for the community and the participants who will benefit," said Paul Saldana , a representative for the Austin chapter of the U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association . "At the same time, the expectation that the minority contractors will have is that the work will be distributed fairly."

Clark said Austin Energy staffers "are ensuring good communication and are meeting with the prime contractors and minority businesses to review the workloads that would come out of this money so that everyone has the opportunity to apply that can perform this type of work."

Since late 2009 , Austin has received more than $8 million in federal stimulus money for weatherization and has made improvements to about 1,700 homes or apartments, Clark said.

With the $1.1 million total it will get this time, Austin Energy estimates it can weatherize 182 housing units over the next few months, Clark said. That will include 54 units at Mount Carmel Village Apartments, a complex near Rosewood Park in East Austin that was slated to be weatherized with the original $400,000 , he said.

Sarah Coppola
statesman.com



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