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A $4 million blessing, or a side of pork?
Some county officials question why stimulus package is pumping up energy efficiency program
By Jake Griffin | Daily Herald Staff

Robert Schillerstrom

 

Paul Fichtner

 

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Published: 2/26/2009 1:39 PM | Updated: 2/26/2009 5:56 PM

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Nobody asked for it - and some even argue it's unnecessary - but DuPage County has an extra $4 million coming its way via the federal stimulus package.

The county's weatherization program, aimed at helping low-income homeowners make energy-efficient improvements to their houses, is receiving five times the funding during the next two years than it normally does. That means instead of receiving the $1.1 million program coordinators were expecting, they'll have $5 million to divvy up.

County officials said the program has never had a waiting list and no one has ever fought for more funding. When county board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom traveled to Washington, D.C., recently to lobby for stimulus funds, the weatherization program wasn't even on his list of requests.

That has some crying "pork."

"It's an example of how the stimulus package priorities are out of whack," said Paul Fichtner, the board's finance committee chairman. "Just from a policy standpoint, I'm frustrated about it because we're getting money for something we don't need money for, and we're in desperate need of money for some roadwork projects."

However, he stopped short of asking Schillerstrom to return the money; Schillerstrom was happy with the influx of cash into the program.

"I am very pleased funding was secured for the weatherization program, which will help qualifying DuPage families reduce their energy costs, save money, create jobs and improve the environment," he said.

The program falls under the purview of Community Services Director Phil Smith, who said 200 homeowners already are lined up for weatherization program funding this year and he expects upward of 1,000 low-income homeowners in the county to benefit from the extra dollars. An average of about 250 homeowners received assistance in previous years, Smith said. He also said the additional money will help create jobs in the county.

"Another thing it will do is put some people to work," he said. "We've got builders and contractors looking for jobs around here, and this will provide some work."

In most cases, homeowners with families must make less than $31,800 a year to qualify for the program.

Currently, the program is capped at about $3,000 per household, Smith said. New guidelines that come with the extra cash allow the county to spend double that amount per home and cover more improvements, such as roofing. In the past, most of the money was spent on replacing large household appliances that didn't meet energy-efficiency standards or the home's windows.

Smith said there is also legislation pending that would slightly loosen the income restrictions that currently limit who can access the funds.

Smith said the program will be marketed more widely to ensure as many people who qualify for the funding are able to apply for money.

Rental properties also qualify, Smith said, but there's a cost-sharing component with landlords. Smith said the number of rental properties that have been improved through the program is "very small."

Weatherization programs nationwide will be receiving similar significant bumps in funding because of the stimulus package, Smith said. In McHenry County, program coordinators there are expecting more than twice the $286,000 they received last year to assist nearly 50 homeowners.

Daily Herald Staff Writer Josh Stockinger contributed to this report.

Stimulus: Program is now capped at $3,000 per household