Nate Jenkins and Sam Hananel
Lincoln, NB — Jackie Harpst expected a busy summer at her nonprofit housing agency, as work crews backed by Nebraska’s share of $5 billion in federal stimulus money headed out to seal windows and spread insulation.
Months after she thought work would begin, not a single window has been caulked. And she’s still not sure
if her team will be able to get to work adding insulation before the summer heat passes — or even before the winter’s chill sets in.
“We’ve hired people and purchased equipment with the anticipation we’d be able to spend the money soon, and now, as we see it drag on and on, it’s just very frustrating,” said Harpst, housing director of the Community Action Partnership of Mid-Nebraska.
Harpst is among the state and local officials nationwide who are sitting on millions in stimulus money targeted for weatherization, worried about running afoul of arcane federal rules governing how much workers should be paid for making energy-saving home improvements.
They blame months of mixed signals sent by federal officials.
“It seems like it’s just been one roadblock after another,” said Christina Zamora, energy program manager for the Community Action Partnership Association of Idaho.
More than 40 states have received about half of the $5 billion allotted for weatherization efforts in the $787 billion stimulus package, according to the Department of Energy. Because that money was sent to hundreds of nonprofit groups scattered across the country, there isn’t a clear estimate of how much has been spent so far.
But several local and state officials interviewed said they are holding back. David Bradley, executive director of the National Community Action Foundation, said the “vast majority” of states aren’t spending the money.
Gilbert Sperling, the U.S. Department of Energy official in charge of the weatherization program, also acknowledged there has been confusion “across the board.”
The $5 billion set aside in the stimulus package is a massive influx of money into an old program aimed at reducing energy costs. Sperling and others responsible for overseeing the program maintain that as early as March, they clearly said that money for weatherizing should be spent in spite of any uncertainty created by the Davis-Bacon Act. The Depression-era law requires contractors to pay wages equal to those prevailing locally for public works projects, and the stimulus law applied it to weatherization projects for the first time.
But those who oversee the nonprofit groups and agencies that states have used for years to perform the weatherization work say Sperling and others flip-flopped in recent months. Zamora and others said federal officials first said the weatherization work could begin in April, then cautioned in June that the Davis-Bacon Act would apply and the spending should be put on hold.
Federal officials said at a July meeting attended by state and local weatherization workers to go ahead and start the work without the wage rules in place.
“They’ve been saying since April they’d have things straightened out and we’d be able to spend the money,” said Jim Crisp, executive director of the Michigan Community Action Agency Association. “Why would we go forward now without the rules in place? So far nothing they’ve said … has come to fruition.”