For conservative opponents of the federal stimulus package, the beleaguered Weatherization Assistance Program has been an easy target. And Texas’ component of the Obama administration’s “green jobs” initiative has hardly been immune, either from the well-documented problems or the criticisms of it.
But despite its rocky start and the disdain of Texas' Republican leadership, including GOP presidential hopeful Gov. Rick Perry, state officials say Texas’ program has actually been quite successful — surpassing its goal of weatherizing more than 38,000 homes and creating more than 1,000 jobs across the state.
The federal weatherization program, designed to help low-income families make energy-efficient upgrades to their homes, has been around since the oil crisis of the 1970s sent electricity prices soaring. But its relatively small annual budget didn’t generate much attention until the Obama administration infused the program with $5 billion as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. As a result, Texas’ $13 million annual weatherization budget got topped off with $327 million in stimulus funds.
“When the federal government comes at you unannounced and throws $327 million at you and says, ‘Go create something and here’s a bunch of rules,’ it’s a real challenge,” said Tim Irvine, executive director of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA), which administers the program.
The highly politicized program came with a set of rigorous federal regulations. Contractors had to perform specific science-based diagnostic tests to determine the most cost-effective way to weatherize a home. And as with all stimulus programs, employers had to abide by the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires them to pay fair and competitive wages determined by the United States Department of Labor.
The program got off to a slow start nationally, and Texas was no exception. Nearly a year after the passage of the stimulus legislation, Texas’ program had created only 117 jobs and failed to weatherize a single home.
In a letter to the Department of Energy in March 2010, Michael Gerber, then the executive director of the TDHCA, blamed the federal government for the delay. He wrote that it had taken the Department of Labor nearly a year to determine appropriate wage rates and that Texas did not receive the information until December 2009. Although the federal government had given states permission to begin weatherizing homes, most states, including Texas, chose to wait rather than risk overpayment or underpayment.
The governor’s office places the blame even higher — with the Obama administration. “This is yet another example of a stimulus program that was poorly designed and has come under national scrutiny for wasting taxpayer funds,” spokeswoman for the governor, Lucy Nashed, wrote in an email.
But Kevin Jewell, an economic analyst for Texas Low Income Housing Information Service who has chronicled the progress of the state program on the nonprofit’s blog, said state officials used the lack of Davis-Bacon wage information as an excuse. Really, he said, the delay occurred because the TDHCA had to build the program from scratch.
“They were ramping the program up from a small annual program to a very large, short-term, one-time project,” he said. “Although they had that seed from the original program, that in my mind is the real reason things had a slow start.”
Many of the small nonprofits in Texas’ existing network of weatherization providers struggled with the increased funding and new federal regulations. Fourteen of the original providers gave back a combined $29 million in weatherization funds to the state because they weren’t prepared to administer the program. Several providers forfeited their stimulus contracts altogether. And at least two of those nonprofits were involved in investigations for fraud.
Those providers who stayed in the program often had contractors who were good at the technical aspects of their jobs but not at record keeping, Irvine said — a major problem given federal audit procedures and other requirements.
A Texas Tribune review of more than 130 TDHCA monitoring reports found weatherization providers consistently had problems accurately documenting expenses and conducting energy audits, which in some cases led to thousands of dollars in unexplained costs and improper installations of energy efficient materials. More than half of the 3,500 weatherized homes inspected by the TDHCA had workmanship deficiencies contractors were ordered to return to fix.
The monitoring reports also reveal more severe transgressions.
The executive director of the West Texas nonprofit Community Council of Reeves County was accused in June of using weatherization funds to purchase groceries and toys, and of authorizing three months of pay for an employee she knew was on unpaid leave. Following a state investigation, the nonprofit voluntarily returned more than $1.6 million in government funds to TDHCA, including $800,000 for the weatherization stimulus program. The nonprofit is no longer in business, and its former executive director could not be reached for comment.
In Laredo, the Webb County Community Action Agency also relinquished its funding after an investigation earlier this year determined that on at least 43 occasions, contractors hired by the organization had invoiced the program for materials that hadn’t been installed.
Officials from the TDHCA said they can’t comment on pending — or possible — criminal investigations. When asked about the fraudulent activity in the program, Irvine said the monitoring reports helped the department identify “a few instances of improper activity.” But he said the real takeaway is that most providers learned from their mistakes.
Texas’ problems certainly weren’t unique. Recent audits of other states’ programs by the Department of Energy’s Inspector General found many have been technical and bureaucratic nightmares.
But with five months remaining and $65 million left in the bank, Texas’ program looks successful by comparison. It has surpassed the weatherization goal set by the Department of Energy by 7,000 homes. The program has created more than 1,000 jobs in Texas. Meanwhile, the TDHCA has trained more than 3,000 contractors, electricians and other technicians through the stimulus-funded Weatherization Training Academy.
Not everyone is impressed. Nashed, the governor’s spokeswoman, said recovery.gov, which tracks Recovery Act spending, inflated the numbers, inflates the number of jobs created by the stimulus program, “making it impossible to know the actual impact of these massive stimulus programs on employment across the nation.”
Jewell, a supporter of the program, said the weatherization providers hired the right number of workers to get the job done. His concern is that Texas providers only spent $5,500 per household on average, while the spending limit set by the federal government is $6,500. “It may indicate the homes that needed the most work haven’t been prioritized,” he said.
But at the ground level, the recipients of the home improvements and the Texas contractors who have been hired say it’s been a giant benefit.
Josie Valdez, whose company, Valdez Remodeling and Weatherization Inc., was contracted by Austin Energy to provide weatherization services in Central Texas, was able to hire five full-time employees with money from the stimulus program. “My business is doing great because of this,” she said.
Sebero Palacio, who works at an Austin grocery store, had the house he shares with six family members upgraded with a new energy efficient air conditioner after a receiving a flyer about the stimulus program in the mail. He can’t wait for the cost savings.
“We don’t have money to pay the bills,” Palacio said. “Sometimes when it’s real hot we have to use the A/C all the time, day and night.”
As part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal government gave Texas $327 million to help low income Texans save on utility bills by making their homes more energy efficient. Use the interactive maps below to explore the effects of the stimulus-backed Weatherization Assistance Program across Texas: The amount of stimulus money distributed to various state-defined regions, how much weatherization providers returned or gained based on their ability to implement the upgrades, the total number of homes the providers weatherized, and the percentage of homes inspected after the repairs that needed follow-up work.
Click on the map to see more details about the weatherization provider in that region.
Click on the headings to sort the table.
|Organization||Stimulus Funds Received||Money Returned or Gained||Percent Spent||Households Weatherized||Original Household Goal||Spending per Household||Homes Inspected After Weatherization||Percent Needing More Work After Inspection|
|ALAMO AREA COUNCIL OF GOVERNMENTS||$15,519,918||$0||67%||3,282||1,792||$3,181||192||71%|
|BEE COMMUNITY ACTION AGENCY||$757,192||-$380,000||88%||90||100||$7,407||31||16%|
|BIG BEND COMMUNITY ACTION COMMITTEE INC.||$1,776,922||-$600,000||91%||238||191||$6,764||39||68%|
|BRAZOS VALLEY COMMUNITY ACTION AGENCY INC.||$7,262,088||$750,000||73%||913||830||$5,814||40||75%|
|CAMERON AND WILLACY COUNTIES COMMUNITY PROJECTS INC.||$5,753,463||$0||103%||1,018||819||$5,798||72||48%|
|CITY OF ARLINGTON||$2,098,456||-$90,000||92%||320||285||$6,046||34||52%|
|CITY OF AUSTIN - AUSTIN ENERGY||$8,090,874||$2,121,100||75%||1,349||996||$4,504||105||58%|
|CITY OF BEAUMONT||$2,256,338||$750,000||71%||293||268||$5,430||49||52%|
|CITY OF BROWNSVILLE||$3,281,585||$0||57%||255||367||$7,305||17||46%|
|CITY OF CORPUS CHRISTI||$3,163,472||$0||79%||816||354||$3,051||83||52%|
|CITY OF DALLAS DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING||$7,306,985||-$6,000,000||98%||1,003||851||$7,116||98||69%|
|CITY OF EL PASO||$7,170,066||-$850,000||81%||891||863||$6,503||97||77%|
|CITY OF HOUSTON||$23,571,279||$0||83%||3,285||2,730||$5,953||207||50%|
|CITY OF LAREDO||$1,479,701||-$1,915,740||56%||210||167||$3,954||36||75%|
|CITY OF LUBBOCK||$4,787,754||$8,219||75%||520||627||$6,926||56||43%|
|CITY OF ODESSA||$1,175,064||$0||83%||190||147||$5,160||19||69%|
|CITY OF SAN ANTONIO||$16,532,609||$4,100,000||81%||2,970||1,951||$4,501||125||50%|
|COMBINED COMMUNITY ACTION INC.||$5,461,915||$1,000,000||82%||631||662||$7,119||58||63%|
|COMMUNITY ACTION COMMITTEE OF VICTORIA||$4,766,792||$0||79%||926||594||$4,055||82||18%|
|COMMUNITY ACTION CORPORATION OF SOUTH TEXAS||$16,735,182||$4,103,115||84%||2,702||2,125||$5,171||321||66%|
|COMMUNITY ACTION PROGRAM INC.||$452,809||-$5,192,938 (Contract Relinquished)||100%||62||42||$7,303||32||81%|
|COMMUNITY COUNCIL OF REEVES COUNTY||$800,361||$0 (Contract Relinquished)||74%||98||78||$6,026|
|COMMUNITY SERVICES AGENCY OF SOUTH TEXAS INC.||$3,685,430||$0 (Contract Relinquished)||25%||221||174||$4,114||23||69%|
|COMMUNITY SERVICES INC.||$10,593,620||-$3,200,001||71%||1,341||1,336||$5,627||122||21%|
|CONCHO VALLEY COMMUNITY ACTION AGENCY||$4,513,684||-$950,000||83%||565||520||$6,666||66||52%|
|DALLAS COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES||$27,918,406||$8,778,808||79%||3,402||3,640||$6,480||232||45%|
|ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITIES ADVANCEMENT CORPORATION OF PR XI||$6,678,661||$1,108,728||80%||781||788||$6,848||58||47%|
|EL PASO COMMUNITY ACTION PROGRAM PROJECT BRAVO INC.||$8,770,948||$0||89%||1,439||1,148||$5,427||116||73%|
|FORT WORTH CITY OF DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING||$15,146,008||$2,250,550||86%||2,027||2,041||$6,428||187||43%|
|GREATER EAST TEXAS COMMUNITY ACTION PROGRAM (GETCAP)||$8,598,602||$2,750,000||80%||1,337||1,092||$5,155||113||73%|
|HILL COUNTRY COMMUNITY ACTION ASSOCIATION INC.||$5,141,277||-$1,000,000||85%||579||632||$7,551||38||21%|
|INSTITUTE OF RURAL DEVELOPMENT INC.||$139,452||-$311,963 (Contract Relinquished)||75%||28||25||$3,752|
|NUECES COUNTY COMMUNITY ACTION AGENCY||$5,419,161||$2,250,000||79%||673||685||$6,328||36||66%|
|PANHANDLE COMMUNITY SERVICES||$3,819,459||-$3,948,632||93%||882||464||$4,032||50||54%|
|PROGRAMS FOR HUMAN SERVICES INC||$9,897,787||$3,500,000||77%||1,197||1,316||$6,338||119||3%|
|ROLLING PLAINS MANAGEMENT CORPORATION||$5,593,915||$1,451,230||74%||770||633||$5,366||53||73%|
|SHELTERING ARMS INC.||$26,783,707||$2,999,999||81%||4,482||3,565||$4,849||204||37%|
|SOUTH PLAINS COMMUNITY ACTION ASSOCIATION||$5,138,889||$1,700,000||70%||573||605||$6,291||52||81%|
|SOUTH TEXAS DEVELOPMENT COUNCIL||$1,327,920||-$500,000||97%||312||185||$4,111||20||46%|
|TEXOMA COUNCIL OF GOVERNMENTS||$7,039,604||$1,076,195||87%||1,216||911||$5,029||59||8%|
|TRI-COUNTY COMMUNITY ACTION INC.||$589,424||-$2,900,000||64%||73||53||$5,129||3||100%|
|WEBB COUNTY COMMUNITY ACTION AGENCY||$599,130||-$1,826,880 (Contract Relinquished)||100%||159||91||$3,768||89||70%|
|WEST TEXAS OPPORTUNITIES INC.||$5,765,748||$0||82%||938||801||$5,009||35||66%|
Austin Energy, a municipally owned utility company, received $8 million in federal stimulus funds to weatherize the homes of low income Texans. In the video, Rusty Smith, a home inspector with Austin Energy, explains the benefits of making these energy efficient upgrades.
The documents below are a sampling of the monitoring reports the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs prepared on the organizations that received federal funding to weatherize Texas homes. Included are the details of the TDHCA's investigations into allegations of fraud at the Community Council of Reeves County and the Webb County Community Action Agency.