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Stimulus cash puts heat on energy groups

Sean Ryan

Wisconsin groups that use public money to make homes more energy efficient worry they do not have enough material or labor to cover the extra work tied to a $141 million influx of stimulus cash.

“It’s a significant opportunity but also a significant challenge for all of us,” said Walter Orzechowski, executive director of the Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program, Dodgeville.

Gov. Jim Doyle on Thursday announced Wisconsin’s cut of weatherization and energy program money from $8 billion in stimulus spending the federal government released. The state will get an additional $70.5 million in 2009 and 2010.

For 2009, the state budgeted for $65 million in federal and state money to improve insulation and heating systems in 9,000 housing units, but the stimulus cash increases the overall budget to $135.5 million and doubles the number of projects, said Bob Jones, public policy director for the Wisconsin Community Action Program Association.

Wisconsin has contracts with 25 organizations that run the weatherization program in different areas of the state. Thirteen of the organizations are Community Action Program chapters.

All 50 states are receiving more stimulus cash that must be spent within the federal deadlines, so the CAP Association is concerned there might not be enough insulation, caulk, ducts and furnaces to meet the demand, Jones said.

“The agencies have already been having contacts with some of their suppliers and contractors that they can use,” he said. “It’s a question of how Wisconsin can get in front and get ahead of the game.”

The ability to get enough furnaces and trucks for the job is a concern, Orzechowski said, but another challenge is getting workers trained to perform the construction work. The Southwest CAP will receive $3.1 million this year, rather than the $1.4 million it was expecting, so it must hire nine people and increase from three to five the number of construction crews to perform the work, he said.

Southwest CAP also will hire contractors to perform some of the 400 projects it plans to complete this year, and the contractors will need training support as well, Orzechowski said.

“It’s a double-edged sword — there are tons and tons of people with construction experience that are looking for work,” he said. “The other side of the coin is weatherization is not an easy thing. There’s more to it than just pouring in insulation.”

The stimulus package allows 20 percent of the weatherization money to be spent on training, Orzechowski said. He said he expects a heavy training effort for the next year, with the state investing money to organize worker training sessions across Wisconsin.

He said investing the money on training, rather than construction work, is a worthwhile investment.

“It takes one to two years really for people to know what they’re doing,” he said. “We have to have them know what they’re doing or else what’s the point of it?”

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