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Praying for rain

by Jordan Green

A blower door is used to monitor pressure levels in houses to gauge how effectively they have been weatherized. (photo by Jordan Green)

State scrutinizes finances of local Weatherization agency that has been troubled by quality control problems and leadership instability

Two days a week the Rev. Russell May serves as the interim pastor at Bethania Moravian Church in Forsyth County. The balance of his week is taken up by a vocation of voluntary poverty and service to the poor through Anthony’s Plot, a communal house on Sunnyside Avenue in Winston-Salem where spiritual seekers live, pray, make music and pursue justice together.

“They call me the abbot of the monastery, but that’s in no way a professional term,” said May, a 32-year-old ordained Moravian pastor who wore a red T-shirt of 1980s DC punk vintage, plaid Chuck Taylors and faded jeans with the right knee blown out. Last week, house members were out collecting cardboard boxes for a shelter project to dramatize the plight of the homeless, based on Scripture from the Book of Numbers. The shelter project has largely supplanted the community’s first initiative — helping their poor and working-class neighbors, mostly Hispanic and black, take advantage of federal stimulus funds distributed by the state of North Carolina through nonprofit community action agencies to weatherize houses and reduce energy costs.

“We put ourselves in a position where people come into our lives, and then we move out in advocacy,” May said, explaining the MO of Anthony’s Plot.

By going door to door in Sunnyside and the western portion of Waughtown and holding community meetings, May and his friends signed up 200 households, completed applications and submitted them to Regional Consolidated Services. To May’s knowledge, not one of them has received the weatherization services promised by the federal program.

Part of the transformative promise of the Obama presidency was an active government effort to spur a new, green economy on the heels of a punishing economic downturn in late 2008. Less than a month into his presidency, Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which authorized $275 billion in federal contracts, grants and loans. North Carolina’s weatherization assistance program received $132 million from that pot. An array of local agencies competed for the funds. Regional Consolidated Services, an Asheborobased nonprofit incorporated in 1979, received $13.3 million to weatherize 1,752 houses in Guilford, Forsyth, Davidson, Randolph and Rockingham counties, a five-county area that includes the cities of Winston-Salem, High Point and Greensboro.

Michelle Kennedy, Regional Consolidated Services’ program operations manager, said the agency has completed 941 units, or about 60 percent of its production target. Meanwhile, the clock is running out, with the contract scheduled to terminate in March 2012. Kennedy projected that the agency will likely complete about 1,300 houses — 450 short of the goal — by that time. Four hundred and fifty is also the number of residents, both homeowners and renters, on the waiting list to have their houses weatherized.

“We have been working very closely with RCS for over a year now to try to get this resolved,” said Jennifer Bumgarner, assistant secretary for energy with the NC Commerce Department. “For us, it’s a very serious thing that they have this funding and we have an agency that is not able to deliver on the funding. We took what is an unusual step for us and assigned two of our employees to their site to help them correct their problems. Unfortunately, RCS, despite a lot of attempts from the state to support them, has not been able to do that. I agree that it’s unfortunate and a detriment to the communities they serve.”

The troubled agency’s weatherization program underwent a second leadership transition in the past month. The weatherization program for the Triad’s five counties has also been plagued by quality control problems, with the agency having to send in scaled-down crews to complete jobs. And the agency is under scrutiny by the state for its fiscal management practices.

The State Bureau of Investigation´s financial crimes unit "is awaiting results of an audit of Regional Consolidated Services before making a decision about whether or not to open an investigation," said Noelle Talley, spokeswoman for the NC Justice Department.

Executive Director Janice Scarborough said she terminated her weatherzation director and deputy director in August 2010 "due to their job performance." Afterwards, she said she "saw some things I did not understand or like," and notified the state weatherization office. That led to a visit from the state Office of Budget and Management, which collected documents.

“They have a problem with quality control,” Bumgarner said. “We’ve had a number of findings that they were not doing things up to the standards that needed to be done. They had a number of units that they had to go back to and fix.”

Scarborough said Regional Consolidated Services has hired about 40 people — most of whom can be described as displaced workers — for crew positions and about 20 additional employees with the federal stimulus funds. Crews of five can generally weatherize a house in about two days, according to one crew leader interviewed for this story. Despite the backlog of applicants and lagging contract performance, Scarborough said the state has discouraged the agency from expanding capacity by purchasing additional vehicles and equipment and hiring additional employees.

“They feel like it’s too late,” she said. As it is, Scarborough added, many of the displaced workers on weatherization crews will be facing layoffs early next year when the contract expires.

“If you’re spending a lot of time going back to units that were not done right, then you’re going to have trouble increasing your capacity,” Bumgarner said. “I would summarize our concerns as internal personnel issues; quality control issues; and, frankly, they’ve had problems with their fiscal management and fiscal reporting processes. Those are the three crucial components that have prevented them from meeting their production goals.”

The challenges to energy efficiency programs funded by the Recovery Act across the country have been known for some time.

“Unfortunately, not as many people have applied as we’d hoped,” US Rep. Brad Miller lamented at the home of a Wake County constituent who was receiving a free weatherization retrofit in November 2010. “We’ve had a significant increase in funding, but not as much money going to pay the contractors as we’d like.”

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Regional Consolidated Services Executive Director Janice Scarborough (background), seen with employees Kevin Scott and Todd Morris (right) (photo by Jordan Green)

Around that time, Rita Joyner, section chief for the state’s weatherization assistance program, told YES! Weekly: “We don’t want to leave one green cent on the table.”

Marcus Brandon, who would replace Earl Jones as representative for NC House District 60 last year, visited Regional Consolidated Services’ headquarters in Asheboro as a candidate in 2010, once with a delegation of elected officials from High Point and Pleasant Garden.

“I could not understand why we had the money, the houses that needed to be weatherized and the people who needed to work — and we’re only 30 percent completed,” said Brandon, whose district includes a significant number of African Americans and the poorest neighborhoods in High Point.

“I proposed to them: How can we increase the capacity to train more people to get more houses done?” Brandon said. “That was not a conversation they were interested in having. They were not interested in having people in High Point do the work in High Point. I made it very clear: I’m not interested in having people from Asheboro come do the work in High Point. The conversation ended right there.”

Brandon said he made a second visit to Regional Consolidated Services after winning his primary with a proposal that the Laborers’ union bring a mobile training center to Asheboro to help the local agency ramp up its capacity. Brandon thought the proposal would bring an added benefit: allowing the new employees to work under a union so they could qualify for union work after the federal funds dried up. He said the leadership at Regional Consolidated Services gave his proposal a cool reception.

Scarborough disputed Brandon’s account that he had asked Regional Consolidated Services to bring in outside trainers, but did not offer her own recollection.

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Winston-Salem pastor Russell May came into contact with Regional Consolidated Services when he tried to help his neighbors get their homes weatherized. (photo by Jordan Green)

In August 2010, Russ May and his friends founded Anthony’s Plot in Winston-Salem. They were looking for a way to serve their mostly poor Hispanic and African-American neighbors. David Clore, a friend in Clemmons who is a commercial and industrial insulation contractor, seemed to have the answer.

“I knew that money was available from the mass media from the stimulus money, and I knew some of it would be given to North Carolina,” Clore said. “I went to the county website, and the county website had the information for RCS.”

Clore had initially thought that residential weatherization might be a good opportunity for himself, but his commercial and industrial work kept him busy, and he recommended the program to May.

“He researched it for a long time,” May recalled. “We thought if we were going to do this, we need RCS to come train us.”

It wasn’t long before the activists at Anthony’s Plot were in touch with Tina Kidd, an intake specialist at Regional Consolidated Services’ satellite office in Winston-Salem. May said they were told that the agency had already reached out to residents in the area and found no interest. He said the service had been publicized in the daily newspaper; most residents are not subscribers.

“We went out in January and February and hit almost every door in the Sunnyside district and a significant portion of the west side of Waughtown,” May recalled. “We

had translators. We were told it didn’t even matter if they needed a Social Security card. All they needed was the last four numbers of a Social Security number or an ITIN number. We had 200 some people show up at our meeting. We had said, ‘Come with an application, and we’ll process you.’” The meeting took place on Jan. 25 at Forest Park Elementary. Anthony’s Plot worked with Qué Pasa newspaper to publicize the meeting. Most of the people who turned in applications were Hispanic, among them many whom May surmises were undocumented. Others were African American.

The publicity surrounding the Jan. 25 meeting spurred more interest.

“People were calling us from all over the city,” May said. “There were some people living in houses — they’re renting them — there are doors nailed together to make a wall. I mean, I had seen bad housing before, but never so much at one time.

“We were sitting in these people’s houses, and they were cold,” he added. “We were hoping — it’s going to be that way again this winter — we were hoping that wouldn’t be the case…. We were so confident. We said, ‘If you apply, your house will be weatherized by next winter.’”

In April, Anthony’s Plot tabled at a community fair in southeast Winston-Salem.

“So many people from the neighborhood who were there came to our table and they were upset because they hadn’t been contacted after submitting their applications,” May said. “It had been three months and nothing had been done. It was so bad that we had to put out a piece of paper and take down names and phone numbers so we could follow up with them later.”

May said Kidd told him in April that many of the applications hadn’t been processed because of language barriers. Michelle Kennedy, the program operations manager in Asheboro, said last week that she doubted that was the reason.

“They didn’t have the level of organization for their intake process to be efficient,” said Bumgarner with the NC Commerce Department. “There are things they could do to make it a quicker process. There was some equipment that we asked them to get. We also felt like they were putting a lot of their resources to Randolph and not enough to Winston-Salem and Davidson, where there were clearly needs that weren’t being met.”

I caught up with a crew in southeast Greensboro last week. Crew leader Troy Smith showed me where they had replaced plywood in the floor of an unused bathroom. Before, he said, he could put his body through the hole. Severe deterioration had allowed conditioned air — heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer — to escape while water accumulated in the basement. Smith told me about how simple processes like applying mastic around the openings of ventilation boots, wrapping hot water heaters in reflective insulation and fixing metal flashing to fireplaces can reduce energy costs by roughly 40 percent.

Bobby Mounts of Randolph County and Kenneth Samuels of Winston-Salem had just finished up in the basement when I was about to leave. They told me it was dirty and dangerous work.

“If you could get rid of the spiders and snakes it would be all right,” Mounts said.

“She had a water lake at the bottom of the basement,” Samuels said of the resident, who asked not to be identified for this story. “The bottom of the basement was so soft like sand because the water has been running down there for years.”

Samuels said he operated a convenient store in Winston-Salem before the bottom fell out of the economy, and found himself unemployed for about a year. He had no experience in weatherization, but Regional Consolidated Services sent him to a training facility in Virginia so he could obtain his certification.

“That’s about 40 jobs they made happen,” Samuels said. “A lot of families eating off of this. We work hard.”

Notwithstanding Samuels’ assurance, Bumgarner’s contention that the agency has been plagued by quality control problems is corroborated by May’s recollection of a conversation with Kidd, the intake specialist at Regional Consolidated Services’ Winston- Salem office.

“Tina has said one of the problems was that the work crews were not doing their full jobs,” May said. “They weren’t spending the full amount of money per house because they wanted to cut out early, especially with homes they didn’t want to be in.”

Kidd disputed May´s account of her statement.

"If a house has a roof that´s falling in or major plumbing problems, we have to walk away from those houses because that´s not in our scope of work," she said. "But we can go back later. There can´t be mold or moisture. It´s a respiratory issue and a safety issue for our workers. With sewer problems it´s the same thing. We tell the people who own the homes there´s an opportunity to fix it."

Community activists are not the only ones that have relied on Regional Consolidated Services to achieve energy efficiency goals.

Last September, city staff attempted to overcome Greensboro City Council members’ doubts about a $5 million federal energy-efficiency grant that was designed to be leveraged into low-interest loans.

“We may have very low-income homeowners that would be able to qualify for the state weatherization program, and if that’s the case, that is certainly where we would refer them because that’s a program that doesn’t cost the property owner any funds,” said Dan Curry, a planning department employee who has since retired. Staff with the city of Greensboro has visited Regional Consolidated Services in Asheboro to discuss the initiative.

In Winston-Salem, a city program funded by the Duke Energy Foundation called the Sustainability Resource Center attempted to marshal Regional Consolidated Services’ resources for a “block by block” energy efficiency initiative. May learned of the city’s efforts to work with Regional Consolidated Services through an e-mail correspondence with Sustainability Resource Center intern Jenny. The center is planning a National Weatherization Day event on Oct. 30.

“The original plan was to have RCS be a partner with the Sustainability Resource Center,” May said, “but there’s a point in the e-mails where Jenny is backtracking. ‘They are not our partners.’ I don’t know what happened.”

Halsey wrote in an e-mail to May in late August: “I am dealing with Michelle in the Asheboro RCS office. This afternoon, I e-mailed her a list of names and addresses that Tina said have been approved or almost approved. Supposedly, she is going to make it work to get a few crews there on that day. It has been more than pulling teeth to get this far with them. I am calling/e-mailing every other day at this point. I will be fighting every bit of the way to make sure work gets done this day.”

The reasons for Regional Consolidated Services’ failure to meet production targets are a matter of dispute between Scarborough and state officials.

Scarborough downplayed her Regional Consolidated Services’ troubles by stating that most of the agencies contracted by the state were facing the same difficulties.

“Fortunately, that’s not accurate,” Bumgarner said. “We do have agencies who have been able to stay abreast of their targets and meet their production goals. We actually have two agencies who have completed all their ARRA production. With around half of our agencies, their production is on target or complete.”

WAMY Community Action in Boone and Mountain Projects in Waynesville have both completed their projects. Bumgarner said the state has considered having agencies that finish early come to the Triad to pick up Regional Consolidated Services’ slack, but subbing the work out to WAMY and Mountain Projects is not practical because they are both at the western end of the state.

“The No. 1 challenge has been that we were told we were going to receive the money in April 2009, and we did not receive it until October 2009,” Scarborough said. “That time was supposed to be used for ramping up.”

Bumgarner dismissed that explanation.

“These agencies in 2009 received a 10-percent advance in their recovery money that was to buy trucks and vehicles,” she said. “RCS did not do that. Their request for additional vehicles came in June of this year. There was missing documentation and, to date, we have not received the completed request.”

Thanks to the deeply flawed implementation of the federal energy-efficiency grant in the Triad, May fears that Anthony’s Plot’s credibility among its neighbors has been undermined.

“We were embarrassed,” he said. “We vis ited people’s houses two and three times. We got them to come to community meetings. We invested so much, and no one was getting their calls back to have their houses audited. We had stuff stolen out of here because we had so many people in and out of our house. We were okay with that.”

Ultimately, just as with their worldly goods, May and his friends had to let go of expectations that they could make a difference.

“Metaphorically, we just downed some shots of vodka and said, ‘Forget about RCS. Oh well,’” he said. “That was a couple of months down the drain.”

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