ANNAPOLIS – The Department of Housing and Community Development will take sole responsibility for the state’s weatherization program next year, pending approval by the Maryland General Assembly, the department told lawmakers Wednesday.
Currently the state has two weatherization programs for low-income families — one administered by the Department of Human Resources, which receives state funds, and the other under the Department of Housing and Community Development, which receives state, federal and special funds.
“This will eliminate the redundancy of the two programs,” said Mary Lou Kueffer, director of DHR’s Office of Home Energy Programs.
The proposed merger, if approved, will be effective July 1, 2005, according to a joint report to the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday by the Maryland Public Service Commission, the Department of Housing and Community Development and the Department of Human Resources.
The agencies agree the merger will bring economic and administrative efficiencies, while improving low-income weatherization services, the report said.
The Department of Human Resources weatherization assistance program follows state law in providing structural services to eligible households, such as insulation or caulking.
The Department of Housing and Community Development, however, looks to the federal definition of weatherization, which includes the replacement of appliances to conserve energy.
No job losses will take place in either department if the two programs merge.
The state appropriates $34 million for energy assistance programs, with about $1.5 million reserved for weatherization. About $800,000 to $900,000 is spent each year.
The joint report requested by the General Assembly recommends annual funding for DHR’s low-income weatherization program be limited to $1 million and transferred from the Electric Universal Service Program to the newly combined weatherization program.
Officials at the Maryland Office of People’s Counsel, however, cautioned committee members about transferring money from Electric Universal Service when it is still needed to help the poor with bill assistance.
“OPC supports the transfer of this program and recognizes the importance of the goals of weatherization,” said Patricia A. Smith, Maryland People’s Counsel. “Our only concern is that the monies that are in the EUSP are so important for the low-income population.”
Officials in the three agencies, however, are hopeful the merger will be approved by the General Assembly.
“We see a lot of benefits in this merger,” said Jim McAteer, senior program manager for single-family housing. “I think we would have a more effective, efficient and consistent program that would help people reduce their energy costs. We’re going to help more people.”
Over the last three years the Department of Housing and Community Development has weatherized an average of 1,000 homes a year, according to McAteer.
About 560 homes were improved by DHR in fiscal year 2004, with 192 homes weatherized in Harford County, the most in the state.
Energy advocates are also supportive.
“We have no objections to turning over the weatherization program to DHCD,” said Mary Ellen Vanni, executive director of Fuel Fund of Maryland and a member of Energy Advocates. “We believe it’s important to help people conserve energy.”