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Weatherization program faces funding issues

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

A publicly funded weatherization program in Fayette County for the economically disadvantaged says it’s lacking necessary project completions this fiscal year and is running out of funds due to a number of challenges. Anticipated future federal budgetary cuts also put the program at risk.

“We’re in a holding pattern right now simply because if something doesn’t shake in a positive fashion, the program is going to be gearing down, not up,” says Earl Smith of MountainHeart Community Services, which is contracted by the county to carry out the weatherization program.

“We are looking at the possibility of a 39.5 percent cut in money (compared to 2008), just from the Department of Energy.”

MountainHeart Community Services is not the first contractor to take a stab at running the program.

Multi-CAP, and then its replacement, Capital Resource Agency, also tried, but in 2010 relinquished control after the Office of Economic Opportunity accused the agency of mismanagement.

No one has accused the same of MountainHeart, but nevertheless, the program lacks 24 weatherization completions that are due June 30 in order to be reimbursed for their expenses.

The jobs are averaging $8,000, but the federal government only allows $6,725 per completion, leaving the agency with a projected shortfall of $37,654.

Smith says he is not sure what will happen if the completion quota isn’t met.

“The worst case scenario is MountainHeart has $40,000 in these jobs that we won’t be reimbursed for,” he says.

“The best case is it’s all rubbed clean.

“Hopefully they’ll say, well, MountainHeart spent more on each house than what we had projected, but that’s OK because they spent all their money in the proper fashion and can account for every penny of it.”

The Weatherization Assistance Program’s goal is to reduce energy costs for low-income families by improving the energy efficiency of their homes while ensuring their health and safety. Workers install insulation and seal air leaks in homes that qualify for the program.

Smith says there is no single reason that the projects are taking so long, but rather myriad of problems, including cumbersome regulations; the need for extensive testing for toxins, such as lead, with specialized equipment; and the ability to attract and retain personnel.

Smith says finding workers experienced in weatherization has been a challenge, and that they simply did not materialize after the agency took over the program. Thus, the need for training has slashed productivity significantly.

“The learning curve is tremendous because you have so many regulations and standards that have to be met...Here we’re sitting, and we have no one that’s licensed and certified (for lead-based paint) in Fayette County,” he says.

Absenteeism and high turnover have also been problems. And workers aren’t being replaced because of anticipated budgetary cuts.

Plus, Smith says there aren’t a lot of simple weatherization jobs in Fayette County. Some counties have more apartment complexes that bump up the completion numbers and require much less time to undertake.

The program is funded by monies from the Department of Energy, American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, Department of Health and Human Resources, and American Electric Power.

Smith is waiting to hear final numbers for next year’s budget, but he hears that a 39.5 percent decrease will be the minimum to expect.

“It will be substantial,” he said.

“I think we’re looking at something like maybe a three- to five- month program if it does come to pass.”

He says the agency will attempt to maintain its staffing levels at the weatherization program, but perhaps shift some employees to other types of work. MountainHeart is also involved in several construction projects.

Despite these issues, the Office of Economic Opportunity conducted field monitoring of the agency’s Fayette and Wyoming County programs in March and reported MountainHeart’s “notable sustained success.” They found no problems or trends for concern.

“As far as the program itself we’re hearing nothing but good things,” says Smith.

“We want this program to stay viable and help the people of our county,” Fayette County Commissioner Denise Scalph told Smith at the most recent commission meeting when he gave a report.

Commission president Matthew Wender said the program had been a “disappointment” in years past under previous contractors but that he hoped MountainHeart’s take-over would mean a “new day.”

“We realize those were the days when the dollars were really flowing, but going forward we want to get as much out of it as we can,” he said.

After next year’s federal funding levels have been finalized, Wender says he will meet with Smith at his headquarters to look at the problematic issues in greater depth and see what can be done to improve the situation.

MountainHeart is one of several community action agencies incorporated in West Virginia under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.

Fayette County, West Virginia
C.V. Moore