AUDITOR GENERAL RELEASES AUDIT OF ENERGY CONSERVATION AND ASSISTANCE PROGRAMS
By Andre Dienner, Pennsylvania Legislative Services | July 10, 2018
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale held a press conference Tuesday in the Media Center to release an audit of the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). DePasquale sharply criticized WAP’s oversight while generally speaking well of the administration of LIHEAP.
The federally funded programs, administered by the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) and Department of Human Services (DHS) respectively, seek to help low-income families improve the energy efficiency of their homes to reduce energy costs and pay their heating bills.
DePasquale explained that in 2015-2016 there were 1.1 million applications for LIHEAP and $150 million in benefits were issued. In comparison, he noted, WAP completed 1,444 homes using $12.28 million. He described the two programs as having “very different approaches” and emphasized the importance of efficiency in the programs considering the need for safety and warmth. He commended DHS for making “significant improvements” since previous audits of LIHEAP, but outlined “continued problems” with DCED in WAP, such as a waiting list dating back to 2001 and unaddressed issues from a 2007 audit.
On LIHEAP, DePasquale highlighted the audit covered July 1, 2015, through June 30, 2016, and resulted in one finding along with three recommendations. He summarized DHS is “overall doing a good job of managing LIHEAP” but $6,200 in benefit overpayments were found due to inaccurate calculations and some households improperly receiving two cash payments. He opined those errors were reasonably dealt with and the department is evaluating how to prevent the issue in the future. DePasquale also mentioned the audit looked at the monitoring process for county assistance offices (CAOs) which found 106 payment errors resulting in a total overpayment of $3,646 and a total gross underpayment of $3,766. “Overall, the audit of LIHEAP shows how a program should be run for the people it serves,” he concluded.
Next on WAP, DePasquale summarized the audit was “not as glowing.” He touched on how the LIHEAP and WAP programs are linked but housed in separate agencies likely due to the 1996 merger of the Department of Commerce and Department of Community Affairs to form DCED, and both are federally funded with a combined total of $194 million.
DePasquale outlined how the WAP audit spanned from July 1, 2013, to June 30, 2017, and resulted in three findings and 20 recommendations. DePasquale stated DCED failed to spend more than $5.4 million of federal funding over a four-year period which potentially could have helped 527 families. He further observed the 2015-2016 budget impasse resulted in funds not being released to local agencies until February 2016, as legally required, but added “That is not an excuse for poor planning.”
DePasquale also found DCED offered additional funding to only three of the 37 local agencies but did not have a documented decision making process to validate its selection. “DCED knew there was an issue of unspent funds when it determined the 2016-17 distributions and did not do enough to correct it,” he asserted. “The money went back to the federal government.” DePasquale described the situation as unacceptable considering the extra money that was available and specifically called for legislation to require any available federal funding promoting the safety and welfare of at-risk Pennsylvanians needing weatherization services be released by state agencies by the end of the fiscal year.
DePasquale next discussed the second finding for WAP relating to a flawed waiting list process. He indicated prioritization is “flawed, poorly administered, and creates an opportunity for local agencies to abuse the process” including no way to track the number of eligible applicants waiting for weatherization services or to know how long they have been on the list. “To not come up with a solution or a game plan or even try to address it is a disgrace,” he stated, also criticizing DCED’s written response to the audit which said “weatherization is not an emergency program, therefore, there are no at-risk issues that are being addressed." DePasquale discarded this argument and similar “legalese nonsense,” opining heat during the winter is an emergency that must be dealt with immediately. He also criticized DCED for not quantifying the waiting list due to their belief “there will always be a waiting list.”
“That’s the whole point,” DePasquale retorted. “There should be a priority, if somebody is on that list longer than others you put them to the top of the list, you figure out why they were on that list longer. You can ask any kindergartener that. Maybe they need to be put in charge of this program at DCED, they can’t do any worse.”
DePasquale lastly called for DCED to look at determination methods, verification, identification of potential multiple payments, and cancellation payments. He mentioned DCED disagreed with some of the twenty recommendations in the audit, including:
· Revise the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) fund allocation to local agencies to incorporate prior year expenditures and ability to spend funds.
· Utilize current low-income, heating degree days, and funding data for DOE WAP allocation formula and maintain documentation to support this data.
· Prioritization for service is flawed, poorly administered, and creates opportunity for abuse.
· Revise prioritization policies to require local agencies to determine if eligibility of applicants at the time of first contact.
· Add a high-risk factor that accounts for length of wait time.
· Written standards and operating procedures for the selection process for determining which dwelling units to conduct the Quality Control Inspection on.
· Training to staff responsible for maintaining the monitoring tracing logs for accuracy.
· Annual monitoring of local agencies for full capacity.
DePasquale took issue with these disagreements saying most of them “are beyond me” and “I guess the message is if you’re on that list for a longer period of time [from] whoever is running that program, ‘eh, screw them.’”
Questions were taken from the media.
Has there been any talk of putting the programs in the same agency?
DePasquale stated that is a good point and he did ask why the programs are in two separate agencies. He reiterated this is related to the historical merger to create DCED, and if they are not willing to reconsider their approach the governor “should consider moving the program to people that give a damn and that would be at DHS.”
There were three agencies which got more money, which were those?
DePasquale replied he does not know off the top of his head but it could be provided.