New Jersey State Sen. Barbara Buono (D) has announced she will hold Senate hearings investigating the spending federal stimulus dollars aimed at weatherizing homes and helping low-income earners cut their energy bills.
“This program has been fraught with problems for a long time,” Buono told NewJersey.com. “Now that there’s an infusion of funds, it’s important that we take a second look at it. Any delay in drawing down funds will not only put vulnerable families in jeopardy but also lose an opportunity to put people back to work.”
Millions Reportedly Wasted
New Jersey was allocated nearly $119 million to weatherize more than 13,000 homes by 2012, with half the money withheld until state officials could prove the money had been put to good use. The money was supposed to pay contractors to perform weatherization work and to fund programs to cut greenhouse gas emissions and energy bills by installing insulation in homes.
Currently, only 2,157 homes have received a total of $11.3 million in weatherization improvements.
One question Buono says she wants answered in her hearings is why the state has spent more than $1 million of the federal dollars to train 225 people to work in the home weatherization field but only seven have actually found jobs. Another question: Why is the state paying $27 for light bulbs that cost $1.50?
A recent state audit uncovered this charge, along with others deemed similarly unreasonable.
Of $613,600 charges from contractors who were paid with weatherization funds, only $54,000— just under 9 percent—were rated as reasonable by the state auditor. In addition to $27 light bulbs, the auditor found charges of $75 for carbon-monoxide detectors that actually cost $22, and $1,499 for two GPS systems that should have cost a total of $400.
State Auditor Stephen Eells also reported $32,700 in fees for services that couldn’t be verified, and $69,000 in construction costs on jobs that couldn’t be confirmed.
“They should hold these hearings,” said Steve Lonegan, director of the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity. “We’re supposed to have this fiscally responsible [Obama] administration. But now we’re seeing this.”
Private Businesses Squeezed Out
Another pitfall of the weatherization program has been its effect in undercutting private sector contractors’ businesses.
“About a year ago, [the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection] decided to bring the program in-house … and use their own guys to compete with the private sector to weatherize homes,” Lonegan noted. “It is really kind of sad. Contractors who have performed these weatherization projects before are now being undersold by the government. They can’t compete.”
Lonegan says he’s hopeful but not necessarily confident the hearings will end the wasteful spending and the program’s biases against private enterprise.
“Will the hearings lead to action?” asked Lonegan. “At the worst, it brings public scrutiny to the issue. At the best, it ends all these [government environmental] programs. But maybe there’s a medium in between that turns it back over to the private sector to accomplish.”
Cheryl K. Chumley ([email protected]) writes from northern Virginia.