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Pa. gets weatherization funds held up by impasse

HARRISBURG - After months of delay caused by state inaction, the federal government finally was able to announce yesterday that it had awarded $101 million in stimulus funds to Pennsylvania for home weatherization.

HARRISBURG - After months of delay caused by state inaction, the federal government finally was able to announce yesterday that it had awarded $101 million in stimulus funds to Pennsylvania for home weatherization.

E. Craig Heim, in charge of weatherization for the state Department of Community and Economic Development, said that while Pennsylvania was "unquestionably behind" many other states in launching its program, "I think we'll be able to catch up."

The funds from the U.S. Department of Energy, together with some earlier money that has been on hold, comprise nearly half of the $253 million that the state expects to receive to weatherize the homes of nearly 30,000 low-income Pennsylvanians over the next 21/2 years. The funds represent a sevenfold expansion of the decades-old Weatherization Assistance Program.

The release of the money had been held up since the spring by the refusal of the legislature to simply vote to accept them. The matter had become caught up in feuding between Republicans and Democrats over the general state budget, which was due to be passed by June 30 and still has not been adopted 56 days later.

State officials revealed yesterday that the stimulus-fund logjam was broken quietly early this month when the legislature passed a stopgap budget.

The interim measure was intended to pay state workers and keep some state services running during the budget impasse. But it included a line item permitting the state to accept the weatherization money.

On Aug. 5, while signing the stopgap budget, Rendell crossed off billions of dollars in what he called nonessential spending. But he retained the weatherization line item.

The action was not widely noticed even under the Capitol dome.

"Nobody seemed to be focused on it at the time," said Barry Ciccocioppo, a Rendell spokesman.

It took until yesterday for the Energy Department to approve and publicly announce the release of $101 million. Pennsylvania previously was offered $22 million in start-up money from the stimulus program, Heim said, but it had not been able to tap those funds, either, without the legislative approval.

The state now has a total of $123 million in weatherization money available to it under the stimulus program. The remaining $130 million should come as it meets program benchmarks in months ahead.

Only low-income residents are eligible for their homes to be weatherized - and then only if their homes waste energy.

Agencies will do "energy audits" to determine what kinds of repairs might conserve energy and save heating costs. Improvements could include a new furnace or energy-efficient windows. The per-home cost is expected to average $6,500.

Heim said his department was finally free to start disbursing funds to the 42 community agencies around the state that have been under instructions for months to ramp up for a sevenfold increase in weatherization services. They haven't had the money to hire additional office staff or buy trucks and supplies.

"This is huge; it's fantastic," an exultant Roger C. Collins, executive director of the Bucks County Opportunity Council, said yesterday after learning of the federal action to release funds.

Collins said his agency had been getting by - doing some worker training and buying some equipment - with use of reserve funds.

Heim said agencies that did not have reserves did not do as well. He said that one in Gettysburg had to shut down temporarily.

"I don't know any agency that isn't struggling," he said.

In some states - Heim cited New Jersey and New York as examples - stimulus-financed weatherization already has begun.

Pennsylvania's program will get rolling slowly, he said. Some agencies could begin work within weeks, but others will take longer to start.

The program, over its 21/2 years, is expected to save or create 940 jobs in Pennsylvania.

Heim said the first round of weatherization will mostly be done by existing workers at the 42 agencies.

Additional workers should come from the ranks of construction workers who already know how to do the jobs required but may not have a job currently.

The goal is to train a lot of new workers for this type of "green" economy. But new hires may not be available to do work until December or January, Heim said.

Other jobs will be created by the spending of "millions of dollars" on weatherization supplies, he said.