Program targets low-income residents

Low-income Kansas residents will get one of the most generous allowances in the nation for purchasing new energy-efficient appliances under a federal stimulus program, including up to $800 for a clothes washer and $700 for a refrigerator.

Oregon is the only state offering a higher amount — $2,000 — and that's a rebate for a new heating system.

But unlike most states, only low-income Kansans may participate in the latest stimulus program modeled after Cash for Clunkers.

"It would be better if it was open to everyone (in Kansas)," said Kevin Snow, owner of Wichita's Herb Snow and Son Maytag. "It would get more sales, and that's the bottom line. But I'm not angry about it."

Nationally, the program is offering a boost for people wanting to buy energy-efficient appliances and to manufacturers whose sales fell 10 percent in 2008 and an additional 12 percent through mid-December 2009.

States developed their own plans for doling out the $300 million in stimulus money — roughly $1 for every resident — for replacing old appliances with energy-efficient models.

Parameters are all over the board, ranging from when they start their programs to amounts allowed, how funds are disbursed and which appliances are covered.

Some states, such as Oregon, have only one appliance in their plans, while others have more than a dozen. Kansas has five, also including freezers, window air conditioners and dishwashers.

All plans had to be approved by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Kansas hopes to replace about 4,800 appliances when it starts using its $2.7 million slice of the stimulus pie this month. Besides refrigerators and washers, the state will issue vouchers worth up to $600 for a freezer, $400 for a dishwasher and $200 for a window air conditioner.

That's clearly on the high end.

Most states, usually by either voucher or rebates, are allowing $50 to $200 for an appliance. For example, California plans to provide a rebate of $100 for a clothes washer, $75 for a refrigerator and $50 for a window air conditioner when its program starts using its $35.3 million allotment this spring.

Except for Kansas, Oregon and Alaska, all the other states — plus the District of Columbia and the five participating U.S. territories — have their programs open to all residents.

Kansas and Oregon are the only states restricting their programs to low-income residents. Alaska opted to limit its rebates to those with disabilities.

It's no coincidence that Kansas and Oregon have the highest allowances. That's because those states opted to provide enough money to pay for the full price of an appliance.

"If you're low income, it doesn't really help if you get a $100 voucher to buy a new refrigerator," said Catherine Couch, spokeswoman for the Kansas Housing Resources Corp., a quasi-public entity that's directing the state's program.

States with programs open to all residents and with smaller allowances will be able to spread the money around more and take more old appliances out of service. That also improves retail business.

The housing corporation also oversaw a similar federally funded program last spring that provided vouchers for low-income residents to buy energy-efficient appliances.

Bob Finn, owner of Lytton's Appliance in Wichita, said he saw some abuse of that program.

"There were some instances where people had a second or third refrigerator sitting in the garage that they brought in," he said.

Couch said the housing corporation hadn't heard of such an abuse.

"Most families have only one refrigerator," she said. "The main goal is to replace that old refrigerator to reduce monthly household utility costs.

"It's a one-for-one deal. But we have no control if someone has more than one fridge."

Finn said lower allowances would mean those using the vouchers would have "some skin in the game" and perhaps would reduce abuse.

But he added, "For the people who truly need something, it's a great deal for them."

He said Lytton's had about 20 to 25 customers bringing in vouchers for last spring's program.

"It generated some activity," Finn said.

The housing corporation's primary mission is helping low-income residents meet their needs. It was chosen by the Kansas Corporation Commission to run the program in part because it handled the similar program last spring.

The housing corporation exhausted its $4 million share of the money within weeks after starting up, Couch said.

Those funds also didn't last long because that program included replacing heating and cooling systems. Of the 2,100 appliances replaced, 573 were furnaces and 533 were central air systems.

By excluding those high-end systems in the new program, Couch said more money will be available for more people.

The housing corporation had 1,500 applications remaining when funds from the old program ran out, Couch said.

Those 1,500 applicants had first chance at the new funds and were allowed to apply for the new program through Friday.

Starting Tuesday, new applications will be accepted from other low-income residents.

The housing corporation will mail rebate vouchers to qualifying Kansans.

Participating retailers will honor the vouchers as cash for the new appliance.

KHRC will pay the retailer directly, covering whichever is lower: the purchase price, or the amount allowed by the voucher.