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New TN agency leads energy assistance....

New TN agency leads energy assistance programs after mismanagement

Bill help, weatherization programs change hands but still face federal funding cuts

Kevin Asberry has a tool that can measure the success of a government program.

It takes about five minutes.

The Goodlettsville-based home repairman makes houses better insulated from hot summers and cold winters through a federally funded effort overseen by the state.

After sealing windows, adding insulation and clearing vents, he sucks air through the home with a large fan, then watches a pressure gauge to see how airtight the house has become. Once the weather changes, the improvements will be easier to feel than see — though everyone likes the look of a lower energy bill, too.

“She could see up to $30 to $60 (savings) a month, on just her electric,” Asberry said at the Nashville home of Melina Tate, where he worked this week. “A majority of people, like Ms. Tate here, are very grateful.”

The goals of the state’s two energy assistance programs are simple enough: help the needy pay their electricity bills and repair homes for long-term efficiency. But carrying them out hasn’t been easy. Federal funding has declined dramatically, and while the state has little control over that, a string of self-inflicted management problems has raised questions about the programs’ effectiveness.

Last year, state auditors found recurring problems in the oversight of the Weatherization Assistance Program, which repairs homes, and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps pay bills.

By executive order, Gov. Bill Haslam took both away from the Department of Human Services. Now, officials with the Tennessee Housing Development Agency are vowing a seamless transition and rigorous accountability of spending — and they’re starting to see a difference.

“It’s the way we do business,” said Ralph Perrey, THDA executive director. “It’s a point of pride with us that in running all those programs we have gone 10 years without an audit finding.”

Perrey wouldn’t comment on how the program ran before, but said he wants to set clear expectations for the social service agencies and contractors that put the money to use.

“Most things,” he said, “can be remedied by being in touch and communicating.”

Still, THDA will be handing out substantially reduced funding. The home weatherization program has fallen to about $650,000 for the entire state — hardly enough to pay salaries.

And funding to help low-income Tennesseans pay electric bills is expected to top out at $45 million, down from $56 million last fiscal year.

“Our experience in housing tells us there are a lot of Tennesseans who live in homes that are not terribly energy efficient,” Perrey said.

Under THDA, contractors who repair homes, including Asberry, have felt a difference. He said the agency requires more training — in some cases driving off inexperienced contractors.

Not long ago, when federal stimulus money flooded in for weatherization, the number of contractors ballooned. And as audits document and Asberry observed, that led to lower-quality repairs at some homes. At times, Asberry was called to repair those that didn’t meet standards.

THDA also has sent staffers to homes while work is being done. “They’re actually more hands-on,” he said.

Hunting for drafts

This week, a three-man crew from Asberry Storm Window roamed the Nashville home of Melina Tate in search of drafty windows and walls, opening closets and swiping their palms across vents for the slightest hint of a breeze.

The home, built in 1900, had been in Tate’s family about 60 years.

“There’s some fossils in the stone out there,” Tate joked.

Later, she referred to her cement basement as the “dungeon.” Asberry’s crew stooped to work there, wrapping her water heater with insulation. They later added insulation in her attic and nearly doubled the airtightness.

In three audits in recent years, state investigators found home improvements were often incomplete, check-ins weren’t performed and some costs were reimbursed. As many as 12 percent of projects were incomplete in a random test in 2011. The year before, inspectors found shoddy work in almost half of the homes they checked.

In its defense, DHS said 95 percent of problems were fixed before the program moved to THDA.

Weatherization preferred

In another twist of federal government inefficiency, local and state officials have questioned for years how funding is allotted between the bill-pay and weatherization efforts.

The bill-pay program, which offers one-time electric bill assistance, receives vastly more funding than weatherization, which helps with long-term fixes.

Each year, Tennessee shifts 15 percent of its bill-pay dollars over to weatherization — the maximum allowed.

“If we can invest some money in making their home better insulated, then we’re reducing that person’s energy bill going forward,” Perrey said.

“We would rather help fix up a home, so that heating bill is reduced permanently.”

In the seven-county area that surrounds Nashville, officials estimated that weatherization improvements to 1,558 homes save more than $1 million in annual energy use.

Kevin Davenport, director of Mid-Cumberland Community Action, said he’ll be able to serve half as many weatherization applicants this year as last, and about two-thirds as many households — about 6,400 — with bills.

But he said differences working with THDA could improve efficiency and prevent mistakes.

“They get a lot of the backup documentation on the front end,” he said. “The thoroughness is a breath of fresh air, that the program is running properly.”

House coats

This spring, 79-year-old Delois Mitchell asked Davenport’s agency for help with her home in Springfield.

Mitchell’s husband died six years ago, leaving the retired hotel employee with limited income. And her little mint green home, where she’d lived more than 40 years, hasn’t been getting any warmer.

After she applied for weatherization help, a local contractor added a foot of insulation in her attic, crawled beneath the foundation to make a moisture barrier, sealed doors and vents, and replaced a window.

Mitchell used to see light streaming into her living room from around the edges of her front door. Not anymore.

Davenport said Mitchell’s utility bill could be cut by $300 per year, a big change for someone on a fixed income.

“I’m going to be warm, I know,” she said. “I won’t have to wear all those house coats.”

To see a video of the Weatherization work performed on Mrs. Mitchell's home, click the link below.