The federal stimulus package allocated $59.5 million to Washington state earlier this year to install energy-efficiency upgrades on low-income homes. But as the frost and fog of late fall settle in, few Washington families have seen the benefit of those dollars.
State officials spent between July and November mired in bureaucratic confusion over how to reconcile federal and state wage requirements for workers. During that time, weatherization work was mostly on hold.
As of last week, state officials had spent $1.8 million of the housing weatherization money they received from the stimulus package – about 3 percent of the total allocation. Workers had completed weatherization projects on 186 homes statewide, hundreds short of state officials’ goal to weatherize 730 units between July and the end of December.
Locally, two Pierce County programs had yet to finish weatherizing any units using the stimulus money, and didn’t expect to have any work completed until January.
Gov. Chris Gregoire last month blasted commerce chief Rogers Weed for slow progress on the weatherization spending, telling him to “get it together.”
Commerce officials now say they’re making rapid progress, but the governor is still waiting to see numbers that prove it, Gregoire spokesman Glen Kuper said last week.
“Right now I would say she’s cautiously optimistic, but still watching very closely,” Kuper said of Gregoire.
The federal stimulus package distributed $5 billion nationwide for weatherization spending, an allocation President Barack Obama said would boost the U.S. economy on three fronts: It would simultaneously create new construction jobs, lower families’ energy bills and reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil.
The work includes energy-efficiency measures such as installing insulation, sealing air leaks and replacing outdated furnaces – improvements intended to reduce low-income homeowners’ energy bills and conserve energy.
It’s the same work that the state’s weatherization assistance program typically performs on about 3,000 units a year without the aid of stimulus money, said Steve Payne, managing director of housing improvements preservation in the state Department of Commerce.
But the influx of stimulus funds brought with it sets of federal rules that never before have applied to residential weatherization projects, Payne said.
Under the stimulus act provisions, weatherization work must abide by Davis-Bacon wage rates, which typically apply to federally funded public works projects.
In addition, the state Legislature also mandated that the state’s own prevailing wage rules govern the weatherization work. Like the Davis-Bacon rules, the state prevailing wage rules have never before applied to residential weatherization.
The two wage scales contained different worker classification systems with conflicting pay rates.
It took the federal government until September and the state government until November to release guidelines for how to apply the varying wage requirements to weatherization work in Washington, said Dick Dorsett, spokesman for the state Department of Labor & Industries.
All of that added up to major confusion for the 25 community action agencies that carry out weatherization programs throughout the state, said Sherry Martin, program coordinator for Pierce County’s weatherization assistance program. It took the Pierce County program until mid-November to figure out how to compare the differing wage requirements and choose between them, Martin said.
“There are two sets of rules, and they have very different reporting requirements,” Martin said.
Pierce County’s weatherization program, which assists low-income residents in unincorporated areas, has yet to complete any stimulus-funded weatherization work, though it had 190 units audited and ready to go last week. It is awarding its first contracts starting today, Martin said, and hopes to complete work on its first round of homes sometime in January.
The Metropolitan Development Council, which administers the weatherization program within the Tacoma city limits, is in a similar situation, said Samphas Phok, the agency’s weatherization director. The organization has 105 units in progress right now, but has yet to complete work on any of them, Phok said. Leaders there also hope to have their first units completed by next month.
“It’s frustrating,” Phok said. “We’re pushing so hard.”
Both local groups say they’ve sorted out the wage classification issues and now are ready to get the work done.
At the state level, commerce officials today are hopeful that they’ll be able to catch up to their original production goals and even exceed them, Payne said.
The Department of Commerce still plans to weatherize 2,400 homes by the end of March. That hasn’t changed with the recent setbacks, Payne said.
There’s an incentive for state officials to stay ahead of schedule. If production falls behind, it’s possible that the federal government could take away 50 percent of the weatherization funds now allocated to Washington and give them to another state, Payne said.
Conversely, should Washington officials move ahead of schedule, they could be in a position to receive funds previously allocated elsewhere, he said. That’s why state officials are trying to spend all of their weatherization money by July 2011, nine months ahead of the federal deadline of March 2012.
“We want to be in the position that we can accept funds from other states,” Payne said. “We certainly don’t want to be in the position that they’re recapturing funds from our state.”
The federal Department of Energy hasn’t told states exactly how many homes they must weatherize to qualify for the remaining funds, Payne said. It’s also unclear what the deadline is before the federal government will start taking funds away, he said.
That’s left state and local agencies scrambling to weatherize as many homes as possible in the months ahead.
“At this point, we are just going to do as many as we can,” said Martin, the Pierce County program coordinator. “The object is to get our numbers up.”
Melissa Santos: 253-552-7058
Another wave of stimulus-funded weatherization work will also begin in early 2010, but it won’t focus on low-income housing.
The state Legislature allocated $14.5 million in stimulus money to fund energy-efficiency upgrades for mid-income homes and small businesses.
The Washington State University Extension Energy Program is administering the funds and selected eight grant recipients back in October.
Now, those groups – two public utilities, one city and and four nonprofits – are setting goals and getting ready to begin work, said Jake Fey, director of the WSU Extension Energy Program.
Most of the stimulus money for the moderate-income weatherization won’t be subject to the conflicting wage rules that have plagued groups working on low-income homes, Fey said last week.
That’s because the $14.5 million helps cover contracts between homeowners and contractors instead of ones paid through government agencies or community action groups, Fey said.
The projects each focus on retrofitting homes and businesses within a given community, using partnerships with utilities and homeowners to pay for some of the project costs.
Fey said some of the groups will be ready to start work in January. This month, the recipients are establishing goals and expectations for their productivity.
Fey said he thinks the groups are on schedule, especially given the complexity of navigating the rules governing stimulus funds.
“Each part of this has taken longer possibly than the standard time frame because of the nature of the money,” Fey said. “Given where a lot of the recovery money is, I think we’ve moved really quickly.”
The grant recipients are:
• Clark Public Utilities (Clark County): $1 million.
• City of Ellensburg: $344,000.
• Opportunity Council (Whatcom, Island and San Juan counties): $2.79 million.
• Pioneer Human Services (King, Pierce, Spokane and Whatcom counties): $2 million.
• Snohomish County PUD: $2.16 million.
• Sustainable Living Center (Walla Walla): $700,000.
• SustainableWorks (Pierce, King and Spokane counties): $4 million.
• Thurston Economic Development Council: $1 million.
Melissa Santos, The News Tribune