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Council members want more efficient weatherization program

Monday, August 27, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

The City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee signed off last week on a proposal that would allocate a portion of the funds from a new Austin Energy weatherization program to the Austin Housing Repair Coalition in an effort to increase efficiency and coordination.

The brand new Community Benefits Fund, which was approved as part of the June Austin Energy rate review package, would utilize $1 million from the utility’s Customer Assistance Program (CAP) for the weatherization of low-income houses.

Committee members expressed concern that Austin Energy’s proposed plan was unnecessarily complicated in determining the eligibility for the free weatherization service and the disbursement of funds.

“I feel there’s a more efficient way to do this coordination,” said Council Member Laura Morrison, speaking about staff’s rather onerous proposed plan to involve Austin Energy, Austin Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, the Housing Repair Coalition and individual contractors.

Under that plan, Austin Energy would coordinate the Neighborhood Housing list of customers in the CAP program and qualify customers into CAP. Staff would look at those customers and prioritize the ones with the highest energy usage. A case manager within CAP would then pass that list to Austin Energy weatherization program staff, who will conduct an onsite energy audit on the property and identify whether weatherization services are needed.

Where things get sticky is when home repair contractors perform work for Neighborhood Housing on a home they believe needs weatherization. In that case, close coordination between the two departments would be necessary to properly refer the work and to pick a contractor off the weatherization contractor list. Neighborhood Housing would invoice Austin Energy, which would reimburse them.

That proposal strikes Charles Cloutman, chair of the Austin Housing Repair Coalition, as being terribly inefficient, especially considering that funding for the weatherization program decreased about $8.2 million now that federal stimulus funds have dried up. There are better ways to use the $1 million Council has allocated for the program, Cloutman said.

”If we’re going to involve Neighborhood Housing, we need to involve them with at least some program delivery funding,” Cloutman told the committee. “It’s senseless to make them work for nothing. We support a funding level of about half a million of the $1 million cap.” That would pay $100,000 for a full-time equivalent employee at Neighborhood Housing and $400,000 to the Repair Coalition, which would find contractors.

Under Cloutman’s proposal, rather than Austin Energy qualifying home repair customers for CAP, Repair Coalition contractors would help them qualify while getting their applications for home repairs and other funds. The coalition would work directly with Austin Energy or Neighborhood Housing, on pre-testing to determine if a particular house needed repairs before weatherization got done.

The coalition could fill in the gaps by taking care of houses that the city has already passed on weatherizing because of overwhelming repair needs,

Cloutman called his plan a “win-win proposition.”

“We just need to make it smart, not hard,” Cloutman said. “(Staff’s proposal) is very hard – two agencies running around: We would pay the contractor to do the work, we would invoice Neighborhood Housing, they would invoice Austin Energy, Austin Energy would finally pay Neighborhood Housing, we would finally get reimbursed 60 to 90 days later. That’s just not very efficient. While we have time to dream, let’s dream it right.”

The committee members agreed, unanimously approving a motion made by Morrison to allocate a portion of weatherization funding from CAP directly to the Home Repair Coalition for home repair programs. In addition, the motion directed that some of the weatherization funds go to customers who are not high-energy users, contrary to staff’s recommendation, because, as Cloutman said, “the majority of people who need home repair are so low income they’re probably not the extremely high users.”

The committee directed staff to come back with exact figures for both the amount of funds going to the coalition and the amount going to non-high-usage customers.

“I’m loath to put numbers on either one of those at this point,” Morrison said.

There are 15,655 CAP participants, all at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Income guideline. Their average consumption is 1,050 kilowatts (KWs) per month. The maximum allowed expenditure per unit under the weatherization program is $5,500, which means the total number of units that could be served by that $1 million is 182, or 1.3 percent of all CAP customers.

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