It was big pot of federal stimulus money aimed at jump-starting the state’s economy, but an audit of a weatherization program found only a fraction of the $119 million allocated to New Jersey has been spent, and some of that went to unreasonable expenditures.
The audit by the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services (OLS) found the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) failed to manage the program effectively, did not complete required inspections and did not document program costs in some areas.
In fact, despite the allocation of $64 million to 23 local and community weatherization agencies, the audit found only $8.7 million in total expenditures was reported by the agencies. The federal government provided the money through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the program enacted by the Obama administration and Congress as part of a stimulus to help the economy rebound from a deep recession.
The audit also documented numerous cases of inappropriate spending. One agency purchased two GPS navigation systems for $1,499 each, when a portable GPS for $200 would have been sufficient, the audit revealed. The same agency purchased two unnecessary remote engine starters at the excessive price of $500 each. The audit did not name the agency.
In addition, another agency was reimbursed $17,327 over a three-month period for vehicles it had already purchased. The report also detailed two agencies that were reimbursed $32,700 for auditing fees, even though no services had been performed.
Numerous instances were found where agencies purchased equipment without U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) approval, even though all expenditures over $5,000 require prior approval from the federal government. One agency purchased a $6,400 insulation machine; another purchased a thermal imager with integrated digital camera for $8,995 without federal signoff.
In submitting its application to the federal government, the DCA established a goal of 13,381 units. Typical weatherization work includes installing insulation, sealing ducts and reducing heat loss through windows, doors and other areas. The audit did not disclose how many units have been weatherized to date.
Christie administration critics faulted the state for failing to adequately monitor the spending.
“There are consequences to the failure of this program to do its job," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “It means more people in New Jersey will be suffering through a cold winter, higher unemployment, more expensive energy bills and more pollution.’’
Tittel said the failure to monitor the spending could hurt New Jersey because the lack of coordination and consistency might jeopardize the state’s ability to receive the remainder of its federal funding for the program.
This lack of consistency was underlined by the finding that the prices different agencies charged the federal government for the same items varied widely. One agency charged $1.50 for light bulbs, while another charged $27. Low-flow shower heads ranged in price from $3.00 to $60, air conditioning covers from $17 to $50, and smoke detectors from $10 to $54.
In a response to the audit, Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Lori Grifa wrote that a rapid expansion of the program in 2009 to meet tight federal guidelines exposed weaknesses in DCA’s monitoring and recordkeeping protocols. “These shortcomings have been or are being remedied immediately," Grifa wrote.
In addition, two senior program supervisors have been replaced and another reassigned, Grifa noted. The department also has retained an accounting firm to conduct ongoing reviews of the fiscal integrity of each of the 23 local weatherizing agencies. She also pledged to deploy additional weatherization field staff to monitor each local agency to ensure compliance with the audit’s recommendations.