David C. Rinebolt
PY 2020 HOME WEATHERIZATION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM
Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments on the proposed Program Year 2020 Home Weatherization Assistance Program State Plan and the related LIHEAP Waiver Request. Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy (OPAE) and its members appreciate the outreach the Ohio Development Services Agency (ODSA) has conducted in compliance with guidance from the U.S. Department of Energy. This is the second year we have had meaningful discussions with ODSA and the plan reflects that consultation.
Ohio has one of the best low-income weatherization programs in the country. Federal, state, and utility funds are coordinated to effectively serve the most vulnerable families in Ohio through a network of committed community-based organizations, suppliers, and contractors. This draft plan supports continuation of that important work. We are aware of the challenges ODSA faces in managing the Home Weatherization Assistance Program. (HWAP.) Still, the State manages a high quality, effective program. ODSA staff and those in the delivery network work well together. Agencies are improving in their ability to spend the HEAP-E funding, a trend that will continue into the new program year. The coordination with utility funding continues to make strides.
II. Modifications to the State Plan Supported by the Network
ODSA’s listening sessions raised a number of issues and recommendations. The summary provided as part of the State Plan demonstrates that ODSA has addressed all of the issues, though not necessarily to always as proposed by the provider network. Nonetheless, there is general agreement on many of the issues as follows:
Waiting List Structure – OPAE and its members would prefer to allow local agencies to determine the priority of service utilizing DOE criteria. The plan proposes a compromise, requiring agencies to serve the top 25% of priority homes at some point during the program year, and flexibility in how and when to serve other priority families, with non-priority customers making up the balance of those served. This approach does provide agencies with additional flexibility to allow more efficient scheduling of clients, make it easier to address no-heat and no hot water calls, and provides additional discretion to local agencies to serve clients in need. While not reflective of the sentiments of the network, this does represent an improvement and during the upcoming year we can determine if this change meets the concerns of the providers.
No-Heat Calls – As noted above, the waiting list flexibility will help address this issue. The HEAP-E funds are available to serve these clients, and the waiting list flexibility will allow us to provide comprehensive service when assisting customers facing this challenge to ensure the HVAC system is properly sized in a fully weatherized home. Statewide Fuel Cost – OPAE members support the action taken by the state to establish a statewide fuel cost for modeling purposes.
Multifamily Units – For many years, ODSA has enforced a limit of 20% on the number of multifamily units at the agency level. This limit is in place because Ohio does not have an approved multifamily audit. In addition, all audits must be reviewed by DOE, again because Ohio does not have an approved multifamily audit. This situation limits the number of apartment dwellers that can be served.
ODSA’s willingness to allow individual agencies to exceed the 20% limit, with approval, addresses this situation short-term. As ODSA notes, only 5-6% of units weatherized now are categorized as multifamily, meaning there is a fair amount of headroom for increasing multifamily weatherization without triggering the 20% statewide limit. Permitting individual agencies to exceed 20% can be done without violating DOE rules. If the percentage of multifamily units continues to grow, this issue will need to be reconsidered in the future.
Cost Allocation Guidance – This issue involved interpreting 2 CFR 200 and other regulations that define what constitutes administrative costs. OPAE believes that some agencies are incorrectly categorizing some personnel, which might be caused by the State using a too expansive definition of administrative costs. We look forward to working with ODSA to provide additional guidance to the agencies during the grant application process.
Landlord Contributions – OPAE supports eliminating landlord contributions for 2-4 unit multifamily buildings.
County Minimums – There is poverty in every part of this State. However, some counties have relatively small low-income populations, and in some areas social norms result in families not requesting assistance. Agencies are frustrated when they have waiting lists of willing, priority clients, but are required to conduct enhanced outreach efforts in counties where there are no priority applicants in order to meet the required minimums.
ODSA has agreed to permit a waiver from this requirement, which will help address the situation. OPAE recommends that any waiver request be evaluated by looking at the totality of the situation the agency is facing, not simply the issues associated with the county for which the waiver is requested. For example, all agencies have additional utility funds and may be providing service with those funds in some counties ODSA views as underserved. OPAE requests that ODSA continue to monitor this, and review the data and formula used to determine the number of clients that must be served per county. It may be, for example, that the number of HEAP clients in a county is a better measure of the need for weatherization services in a county.
Weatherize Ohio – OPAE and the network appreciate the continued support for the Weatherize Ohio conference.
III. Issues for Continued Discussion
Waiting List Structure – As noted above, providers will monitor whether the flexibility provided by ODSA is adequate to ensure efficient and effective service.
Priority List – There are strong opinions on both sides of the issue of whether to reinstate a priority list approach or retain the requirement to run NEAT or MHEA, and no consensus among providers which option is the most effective. OPAE recommends that the State, working with the Technical Subcommittee of the Policy Advisory Council conduct an analysis of installed measures to determine if a priority list would address the needs of the majority of homes served. This would permit a more substantive debate on the issue.
Improving Referrals from HEAP and Other Programs to HWAP – OPAE looks forward to working with ODSA to improve referrals as data systems are upgraded.
Risk Assessment Tool – The providers support a review and revision of the risk assessment tool, which is essentially a draft tool created during the Kasich Administration that was never finalized. OPAE and the agencies look forward to providing feedback on this issue.
County Minimums – OPAE supports providing agencies with the maximum discretion possible in choosing the applicants to serve, and hopes that a dialogue with ODSA on this issue can continue. None of the utility programs have county minimums; it is enough that all customers have an equal opportunity to be served. We view this as the correct approach, and would like to continue discussions.
IV. The State Should Provide Funding for a Leveraging Program in the State Plan
OPAE has filed two leveraging proposals with ODSA for inclusion with the State Plan. Our understanding is that the proposal to fund the start-up work associated with a community weatherization program in the Toledo area remains under consideration, while a second proposal to fund a traditional leveraging program designed to establish partnerships with utilities and other funding entities will not be approved.
The COVID-19 epidemic has temporarily affected the ability of providers to serve customers, and bring into question whether new initiatives such as the Toledo community weatherization project can move forward. We view the initial grant as providing seed funding to coordinate local buy-in and support, and develop other resources to fund the project. This could be accomplished later in the program year, kicking off in early 2021. Programming the funding now would allow us to get the contract in place and begin to plan the project. If for some reason the initiative cannot go forward, the funds could be reprogrammed for other purposes.
The rejection of the traditional leveraging grant application was disappointing. Over half of the homes weatherized and half the jobs in the network are funded by utility programs. All are coordinated with HWAP and HEAP-E. DOE State Plan guidance encourages states to invest in leveraging activities. Indeed, OPAE was created with leveraging funds from HWAP and then HEAP. The fact that over half the funding used by the network now comes from partnerships demonstrates the impact of this investment.
We face a challenging time going forward. HB 6 eliminated energy efficiency mandates. While most utilities had low-income programs prior to the passages of the mandates, the programs were generally incorporated into the DSM portfolios and funded through the utility energy efficiency riders. Under the provisions of HB 6, those programs are to terminate on December 31st.
AEP Ohio and The Dayton Power and Light Company have both indicated their intention to request approval of voluntary DSM portfolios which will include low-income programs. (FirstEnergy’s low-income program is already authorized through mid-2024.) It will be necessary for OPAE to be at the table. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 emergency has temporarily restricted OPAE’s income from managing programs, and may limit its capacity to be involved in working with the utilities to develop the future programs. In addition, the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel is actively opposing the existing partnerships OPAE members have in place with the natural gas utilities. This is already resulting in significant litigation activities, further straining scarce resources.
Ohio is nationally recognized as a weatherization powerhouse. Its leveraging program is used as an example across the country on how to work with utilities to develop effective and efficient programs. Ensuring the continuation of the leveraging program is important to preserving services to needy clients. We urge reconsideration of the
rejection of the proposal.
DOE conducted its first American Consumer Satisfaction Index process in 2017, and required states to develop action plans that respond to the needs expressed by subgrantees. Ohio has done this. One component where Ohio had received very low scores was in the development of the state plan. The plan we are commenting on today reflects much greater input from the provider network than in the past, one of the goals of the DOE initiative. Overall, the State of Ohio’s scores are the 2019 Index showed significant improvement. The recognition of the importance of consultation and strengthening the partnership between the State and the providers is welcomed, and our customers will benefit from this. We look forward to continuing the positive relationship developed during the past two years and further improving the delivery of weatherization services to Ohio’s most vulnerable families.