Five months into the federal stimulus program, Pennsylvania is lagging behind its neighbor New Jersey and other states in preparing for a deluge of money to do energy-saving home improvements for low-income families.

The state has received about $25 million of $253 million it expects to get over three years for the massive expansion of its Weatherization Assistance Program, which dates to the '70s.

Most states have begun training workers and helping the community agencies that will do weatherization beef up their staff and equipment. Forty-two states have been rewarded with a second round of stimulus funding that will allow them to start actual construction work.

But because of the state budget impasse and political wrangling in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania has yet to spend a dime of the new money.

The state "absolutely" is behind, said H. Craig Heim, recently brought in by Gov. Rendell's administration to direct the program.

Heim said a long delay could cripple some of the 42 community agencies that would do the work once funds were released.

"It's a problem for us," he said in an interview.

Pennsylvania plans to weatherize 29,700 houses and create an estimated 940 jobs with the stimulus money. The $253 million includes seven times its usual allotment of federal funds.

State Rep. Brian L. Ellis, a Butler County Republican who sits on the state's Stimulus Oversight Commission, said, however, that if the program was in trouble, the commission hadn't been told about it.

"This sounds like political rhetoric to me," he said. "If the problem is so bad, why haven't they brought it up at a meeting?"

The money has been available since April. An unusual provision in Pennsylvania's constitution requires that it be appropriated by the legislature.

Instead of acting on that alone, legislative leaders wrapped the weatherization money into the broader, contentious negotiations over the state budget. The budget, required by June 30, is now three weeks overdue.

The weatherization can include anything from putting in an energy-efficient furnace to installing insulation or windows. The cost is expected to average up to $6,500 per house.

When leaders of 42 community agencies that will perform the work met with state officials Tuesday at the Harrisburg Hilton, there was anxiety in the room.

The agencies have been pressured by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Affairs to prepare for the manyfold increase in the number of housing units they will be expected to weatherize.

But the state has not yet provided money to pay for salaries or vehicles.

"They're saying, 'Ramp up, ramp up,' but when are they going to release the money?" asked Elena Baker, who for 23 years has directed the weatherization program at the Montgomery County Community Action Development Agency, in Norristown.

Her agency did energy-saving work in about 215 homes in the last year. With $3 million in expected stimulus money, it will be able to do 500 more than its usual number.

Most of the work will be bid out to contractors. But the agency still must hire two to three additional auditors and buy two trucks, Baker said.

"We should be doing that now," she said. "Our current budget will not allow us to ramp up for the stimulus. It [the funding delay] is hindering us - but we'll get the job done."

At the Hilton meeting Tuesday, there was discussion of the state's urging banks to make short-term loans to the agencies with lines of credit.

Heim said he'd be willing to do that.

He said afterward that some agencies had told him, "If this [delay] goes any longer, we're going to lay off the people who are planning" the program.

Rendell, testifying July 8 before a U.S. House committee in Washington, said the state's "current infrastructure" for weatherization was not capable of handling a sevenfold increase in funds. But he said the state was working as fast as it could to build up the system.

"I said it was more than the current system could handle," he reiterated in a brief interview Wednesday after a public appearance in Bucks County. ". . . We're working right now."

The weatherization program might require more added management by the state than any part of the stimulus package.

About $20 million in stimulus funds will be allotted to the Department of Labor and Industry, principally to train and certify weatherization workers.

The state now has one training center in Williamsport. Heim said that, when money was released, the agency would open seven to 10 others around the state.

The Department of Economic and Community Affairs, in which Heim heads the new Office of Energy Conservation and Weatherization, will get $8.3 million to oversee the program.

Heim recently was hired away from the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania. Mitchell Miller, a former bureau director at the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, has been brought in as a consultant to the program.

"The marching order I've gotten from everyone [in the Rendell administration] is, 'Don't let us be embarrassed; we cannot fail,' " Heim said. "But the volume of money is so far beyond what has been the volume in the past that this will be challenging."

At present, the state still hopes to get a lot of worker training done this summer, provided the budget impasse is soon resolved. Funds for actual work on homes of low-income families could be released by the start of fall.

New Jersey, which is to get $118 million in stimulus funding for 13,000 housing units, began this month to provide local agencies with training and technical assistance, and money to buy equipment and vehicles.

"Ramp-up activities - such as training, purchasing equipment, hiring, job fairs, etc. - have occurred," said Chris Donnelly, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.

New Jersey is not among the 42 states that have gotten a second round of funds. But Donnelly said Friday that he expected additional money in the "near future."

Contact staff writer Tom Infield
at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.