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Winterization program far behind goals

A program to winterize thousands of homes using federal stimulus money has fallen far behind its initial goals, according to a federal report.

The Department of Energy's inspector general found that almost 95 percent of targeted homes remained unweatherized as of last week.

"We found this data alarming," the report noted, adding: "Program challenges... placed the Recovery Act-funded weatherization program 'on hold' for up to nine months."

Those challenges, the report said, included red tape and confusion over wage rates.

The stimulus bill required companies performing weatherization work to pay "prevailing wages" — the hourly rate earned by a majority of workers performing similar work in a geographic area. Many grant recipients were not sure what the pay would be because weatherization workers were not typically paid the prevailing wage.

Worried about a big bill for additional back pay, the report said, many grantees simply waited until the Department of Labor last fall issued prevailing wage "guidance."

In the 2009 stimulus bill, Congress set aside $5 billion over three years to weatherize roughly 586,000 older homes. The idea was to improve energy efficiency, cut fuel bills and provide jobs for thousands of workers.

But by last week, the inspector general found that just 30,297 homes — or about 5.2 percent — had been upgraded. Five states, the District of Columbia and several territories and tribal areas failed to weatherize any homes.

Kansas weatherized just 267 homes, only 4.59 percent of its target. Missouri did a little better: 1,089 homes out of a target of 21,506 residences, or 5.06 percent.

Kansas City's effort, however, outpaced the state's. The city received $9 million in stimulus dollars to weatherize about 1,400 homes by March 31, 2012. Of those, 230 were finished by early February, or about 16 percent.

Bob Jackson, Kansas City's manager of property preservation, said the program was slow to start because of bureaucratic delays with the federal government. Kansas City got its grant agreement in June, Jackson said, but did not find out about the acceptable prevailing wage rate for contractors until September.

Cold, snowy weather also has slowed much of the exterior weatherization work, Jackson said. Still, he is confident Kansas City can complete the required number of homes.

The Energy Department's weatherization office said it thought the biggest problems had been addressed and more homes would be winterized this year.

"The Department is confident that the weatherization efforts under the Recovery Act continue to ramp up and will achieve the economic impact envisioned while creating clean energy jobs across the nation," it said in answering issues raised in the report.

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