How Stimulus Funds Could Pay to Weatherize Your Home
By Amy Lester, Oklahoma Impact
A tearful thank you pours out in an Oklahoma City home. "I'm overwhelmed with joy right now because I could never afford to do this," says Lorrie Brown. She is one of the first Oklahomans reaping the benefits of the weatherization program, paid for with federal stimulus dollars.
The Oklahoma Department of Commerce has $63 million stimulus dollars to make homes more energy efficient. That provides the agency with more than 20 times its usual appropriation of around $3 million.
"There's $60 million more than we had yesterday and there is this heightened scrutiny and so we need to make sure that we have the processes in place so that we can properly account for it," said Natalie Shirley, State Secretary of Commerce and Tourism.
Community Action Agencies across the state will receive the funding from the Department of Commerce to do the work. They're hiring 150 people to weatherize around 7,000 homes. The agencies can spend $6,500 on a home, before they could only use about $3,000.
"Generally, we have wonderful responses from the homeowners or people who've received services because they see such a substantial change in their homes," said Michael Jones, Oklahoma Association of Community Action Agencies, Executive Director.
Homeowners can receive new insulation, energy efficient light bulbs, ventilation, energy star refrigerators, doors and windows.
The stimulus package also changes the income requirements, allowing more people to qualify. The requirements expand the program to include people with income levels at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. For example, a family of four needs to make $44,100 or less a year.
While the workers do not undergo a certification process in the state, they attend training seminars and learn on the job.
"We do want them to look good, we want the homeowner to be proud of what we're doing and of course, these are people from Oklahoma doing the work, and we want to do good," said Matt Van Horn, Community Action Agency of OKC and Oklahoma/Canadian County Weatherization Coordinator.
With so much money going out quickly, there's concern about abuse of the weatherization program. "Weatherization's ripe for fraud," said U.S. Senator Tom Coburn. "Whoever's receiving that can't perceive if they got good value or not and we've seen a lot of that throughout the country with a lot of fraud in the past and that'll be something very close to watch."
The community action agencies are watching for fraud. An assessor will check all of the completed homes.
"We find things that are not right sometimes on the re-inspection and we just have to fix them. If we have to slow down on some of them, we have to slow down and get them right," said Matt Van Horn, Community Action Agency of OKC and Oklahoma/Canadian County Weatherization Coordinator.
The state Department of Commerce also hired three employees to inspect 10% of the completed homes and review how the money's used.
"It's our money, it's your money, it's my money, it's every citizen in this nation's money and it must be spent properly," said Secretary Shirley.
If the employees find a lot of problems, Secretary Natalie Shirley will increase the number of homes inspected and use stimulus dollars to hire more people to monitor the program.
Right now, 4,200 Oklahomans are on the waiting list for weatherization. The state has enough money for 7,000. Secretary Shirley believes the state will be able to reach out to enough residents and spend all $60 million in stimulus dollars.