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$5-billion boost for weatherization seen as waste of stimulus funds

Critics worry that the money will be spent on the costs of organizing and maintaining the program for low-income homeowners rather than meeting Obama's goal of creating tens of thousands of jobs.

February 16, 2009|Sarah Gantz

WASHINGTON — A $5-billion boost to the three-decade-old Weatherization Assistance Program contained in the stimulus bill passed by Congress last week could help caulk and seal hundreds of thousands of homes, but critics say it is not clear it will create many jobs.

President Obama has said the new funding will create tens of thousands of jobs, improve the nation's energy efficiency and cut energy costs for hundreds of thousands of low-income homeowners. The National Community Action Foundation, a group that advocates for low-income families, estimates that 46,000 jobs will be created.

But some say the stimulus bill is not the appropriate place to allocate money for the weatherization program, which operates on a budget of $447 million.

"We always know there's weather coming," said Leslie Paige, a spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste, a taxpayer watchdog organization. "It's not something that needs to go in an emergency recovery package."

Paige said critics were worried that the extra money would be spent on the administrative costs of organizing and maintaining the program rather than on meeting Obama's goals.

"They're throwing money at it and hoping and claiming it's going to create jobs," Paige said. "I think most people should be very skeptical of that."

House Republicans agree.

"Having the federal government pay for caulk and insulation may or may not be a sensible idea, but it will do little or nothing to create jobs in the short term, and it has no place in a bill designed to get our economy moving again," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), according to the Associated Press.

But Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said putting $5 billion toward weatherization would be "an investment that provides both short-term job benefits and long-term energy dividends."

To qualify for the Weatherization Assistance Program, household income cannot be more than 50% above the poverty level, according to the Energy Department.

The $5 billion in the stimulus legislation "will go a long way" to meeting Obama's goal of weatherizing 1 million homes a year, the Alliance to Save Energy said.

The average household spends about 5% of its income on energy costs. But low-income households spend a disproportionate amount of their annual incomes -- about 16% -- on energy costs, said the Energy Department, which oversees the weatherization program.

The department said the program could reduce a household's annual gas heating consumption by about 32%, or $350.

The program serves about 150,000 homes a year. Joe Loper, vice president of the Alliance to Save Energy, estimated that the stimulus money could result in weatherization for as many as 400,000 additional homes this year and 700,000 more in 2010.

But according to Energy Department statistics, more than 33.8 million households are eligible for weatherization services.

"It's been extremely underfunded for a number of years," said Jo-Ann Choate, manager of energy and housing services in Maine, which receives about $3 million in federal aid for weatherization.

Maine's program weatherized more than 1,500 homes in 2006. The program spends about $5,000 on each home to install insulation, caulk holes and seal leaky foundations. With at least 200,000 homes qualifying for assistance, Choate said, homeowners often wait for years.

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sgantz@tribune.com

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