Most federal weatherization funding in Minn. remains unspent

Six months after Congress allocated billions of federal stimulus dollars to weatherize low-income homes and create jobs, much of the money remains unspent.

In Minnesota only 2 percent of the state's more than $130 million has been spent as of the end of July. Even supporters of the program complain the roll-out has been "agonizingly slow."

John Woodwick thought that when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act or ARRA became law, there would be a rush.

Woodwick is the Executive Director of the Minnesota Valley Action Council. The Mankato organization runs the low-income weatherization program in a large area of south-central Minnesota.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

"I was in Washington in February after they just passed the ARRA act and the talk was this money's coming, you've got to be ready for it, you've got to be able to produce," Woodwick said.

Woodwick said his agency normally has enough federal money to weatherize about 200 homes year. But the stimulus will give him enough for an additional 800 homes.

Still, Woodwick said he's been proceeding only with his conventional weatherization program.

"And now it is seven months later and no homes have been weatherized with ARRA funds."

"And now it is seven months later and no homes have been weatherized with ARRA funds," he said.

Woodwick said he's ready to put stimulus money to work. Extra crews have been trained but they're sitting idle.

"Homes have not been weatherized," Woodwick said. "People have not been hired. Low-income people that could be saving on their energy bills by a more efficient house haven't been able to feel the full effects of that."

The problem Woodwick said is he doesn't know how much to pay the workers.

In passing the stimulus, Congress mandated that weatherization workers be paid what is called a prevailing wage, and it's taken the U.S. Department of Labor months to start coming up with state-by-state wage determinations.

Woodwick is hardly the only one dealing with the problem. "Losing months like we have is absolutely tragic," he said.

David Bradley heads the National Community Action Foundation and represents about 80 percent of the nation's low-income weatherization providers. He said many of them are holding back even though they've got plenty of work to do.

"We've lost time, no doubt about it, and that is unfortunate particularly [for] a program that is in lots of ways a poster child of the stimulus bill," Bradley said.

The Obama administration has been selling the weatherization piece of the stimulus as a win-win on several levels.

Poor people's homes would be made more energy efficient, saving them money, trades people hungry for work would get jobs, and more energy-efficient homes would reduce pollution and America's dependence on foreign fuel.

Bradley is a big supporter of the effort. He said more homes all over the country would have been weatherized by now had the federal government been faster at getting the wage information out.

"The ramp up time, the start up time has been an agonizingly slow process that has pleased no one," he said.

The Director of the Minnesota Energy Office, Janet Streff, said Minnesota will have nearly $132 million in stimulus weatherization to work with. That's more than ten times the normal amount of funding, but Streff said through July, only about $3 million of money had been spent.

Streff acknowledges some providers won't start stimulus-funded weatherization projects until they know what they're supposed to pay workers.

"We've been very busy working at the national level trying to get that bar moved to that we can start work on the program," Streff said.

Streff said it's been frustrating but that crews have kept busy upgrading homes around the state using primarily conventional weatherization money.

Still, Streff acknowledges that some ground has been lost.

"We probably would have weatherized more homes by now but on the whole I don't think we've lost a huge amount of time," Streff said.

David Bradley disagreed and said a lot of opportunity has been lost. "I look at April and May and June and July and August and those are absolutely peak weatherization months and we've lost a lot of it," he said.

The head of the weatherization program at the U. S. Department of Energy, Gil Sperling, said there is no reason providers should be waiting to spend stimulus money even without exact wage information. Sperling said improving housing and putting people to work trump wage compliance issues. He's been telling providers those concerns can be resolved later.

"We've made it clear that if they have to adjust wages because they haven't been paying what the Department of Labor determines the prevailing of wage to be in that area that they can use recovery act funds to make those adjustments," Sperling said.

But John Woodwick, who runs the Minnesota Valley Action Council, said what Sperling has been proposing just doesn't make sense.

"I mean it's not efficient for us to go backwards in order to make sure that we would pay a prevailing wage whatever that comes out to be," Woodwick said. "We'd be guessing. We would be shooting in the dark."

Sperling insists the stimulus weatherization program has been proceeding better than expected.

Some providers still question whether reaching the Obama Administration's goal of getting 75 percent of the work done by next fall is attainable, giving the long wait for wage information.