WILKES-BARRE — Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said his recent performance audits of two programs designed to keep low-income residents warm and safe through winter found the state failed to spend $5.4 million of federal funding that potentially could have helped 527 families.
The Department of Community and Economic Development administers the federal Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) which helps low-income families reduce energy costs by increasing the energy efficiency of their homes. The Department of Human Services administers the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) that helps low-income families pay their heating bills.
Results of the two audits are combined in a 90-page report that includes one finding and three recommendations for LIHEAP along with three findings and 20 recommendations to improve the weatherization program.
“What we found are two state agencies with very different approaches to administering these vital federal programs designed to help low-income families survive Pennsylvania winters,” DePasquale said. “While DHS made significant improvements in LIHEAP based on previous audits, we found continued problems with DCED’s weatherization service waiting list dating back to 2001 that were called out in previous audits as far back as 2007.”
DCED “failed to spend $5,449,093 of U.S. Department of Energy funds over four years due to the 2015-2016 state budget impasse and newly implemented federal weatherization quality standards,” DePasquale continued.
The 2015-2016 budget impasse that began July 1, 2015, resulted in funds not being released to local agencies until February 2016. This led to local agencies needing to spend two years of funding in 17 months.
“While it is clear those funds cannot legally be spent during a budget impasse, that is not an excuse for poor planning,” DePasquale said. “DCED should have spent that time preparing to help the largest number of vulnerable residents. Instead, DCED had to give $5.4 million back to the federal government. That is unacceptable.”
Auditors found DCED offered additional funding to only three of 37 local agencies and did not have a documented decision-making process to back up its selection of agencies.
“I am calling on Gov. Tom Wolf and the General Assembly to pass a law that requires all available federal funding that promotes the safety and welfare of at-risk Pennsylvanians to be released to state agencies as of July 1 of each year,” DePasquale said. “In the event of a budget impasse, our most vulnerable residents would not have to risk harm while elected officials are sitting in air-conditioned, heated state office buildings.”
The audit also found DCED’s process to prioritize weatherization services is flawed, poorly administered, and creates an opportunity for local agencies to abuse the process. For example, DCED has no way to track the number of eligible applicants waiting for weatherization services or to know how long they have been on the list.
In its written response, which is included in the audit, DCED said, “Weatherization is not an emergency program, therefore, there are no at-risk issues that are being addressed.”
DePasquale replied that he’s “shocked and appalled” by that attitude.
As for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program administered by the Department of Human Services, the audit includes one finding. It concerns benefit payments that were inaccurately calculated and some households improperly receiving two cash payments. The benefit overpayments amounted to $6,200 in the high-risk areas that were examined. DHS said the errors were most likely due to staff not noticing or investigating matching address alerts in the system. The agency is evaluating the best way to prevent overpayments in the future.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.