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TX: Couple fit to be tied in red tape; stimulus cash more trouble than it was worth

By   /   December 11, 2012  /   1 Comment

By Mark Lisheron | Texas Watchdog

Austin couple

STIMULUS: Brandi and Byron Hockaday say contractor errors plagued a federal stimulus project to boost the energy efficiency of their Austin home.

AUSTIN —  Viewed in one very particular way, carefully following the bureaucratic contours of a $327-million stimulus energy efficiency program, the weatherization of Brandi and Byron Hockaday’s south Austin home is a success story.

Rules and guidelines were followed. Contractors and inspectors returned again and again to check the work. And when things weren’t right Austin Energy made them right at its own expense. And none of it, or almost none of it, cost the Hockadays a dime.

And yet, after more than two years and more than $14,000 spent, no one involved, least of all the Hockadays, believes they should have gotten involved with the federal weatherization assistance program in the first place.

On Oct. 31, after the latest of dozens of complaints, Austin Energy customer service representative Ann Salerno put an official end to its relationship with the Hockadays.

“For many months while assisting you, Austin Energy has exceeded its role as the involved electric utility,” Salerno said in a letter, one of a fistful Brandi held in her hand on the sofa in their living room. “Austin Energy staff has gone above and beyond its obligations and, at this point, there is nothing else Austin Energy can do to assist.”

But what about the gas line left exposed and running right alongside the air conditioning line in the bedroom wall? The positive test for mold? And the incessant cycling of an air conditioning system that is supposed to be the best in the industry?

All of the contractor errors, the unexpected visits to fix things that never got fixed. The arguing that once nearly led to a fistfight. The derision and condescension from at least one of the Austin Energy officials.

“They damaged our house, they put our family in danger and they’ve repeatedly said we need to be done with this,” Byron said, unable to stay seated next to Brandi. “That’s what’s flooring us here. We’re tired of this shit.”

Spend five minutes with the Hockadays, and you are convinced tired isn’t at all the right word. They have filed every document — paper and electronic — generated by their case. They recorded phone calls with workers, contracting supervisors and Austin Energy program leaders. They’re already tag-teaming their latest contractor.

The Hockadays aren’t tired by a long shot.

Pulling up to the Hockadays’ home in a neat, middle-class neighborhood, it is difficult to grasp how, indeed, they ever got involved in the program.

There is an older model, silver Jaguar in the driveway of a nicely maintained 1,400-square-foot home.

The Hockadays built this house themselves in 1999. Both of them had good-paying jobs with a commercial printing company until day care costs for their two children made it more cost effective for one of them to stay home.

“We flipped a coin, and I became Mr. Mom,” Byron said. “It worked out because I wanted to get my own mobile IT business started.”

It worked out until June 2010 when Brandi was laid off after 13 years with the company. The Hockadays’ combined work experience came from an industry in decline.

Brandi started investigating and found that the family now qualified for food stamps. They enrolled the children in Medicaid for their health care. And when she went to the Austin Energy website she spotted a house ad for a “Free Energy Program.”

She filled out a two-page application sometime in late July.

The program the ad referred to was part of the Weatherization Assistance Program, the U.S. Department of Energy’s $5-billion contribution to the $862-billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The goal of the program was to help low-income Americans save money on their monthly bills by making their homes more energy efficient at no cost to them.

Joseph Guerrero, now the weatherization program coordinator for Austin Energy, said his company dispatched the inspector based, according to the program’s guidelines, on little more than the Hockadays’ current combined income.

An interview with the Hockadays, a visit to the home, past earnings, the value of the home, even the Jaguar in the driveway was not part of the calculation, he said.

“We had no authority to question any of it. It’s not arbitrary,” Guerrero said. “Had we denied it for any of those reasons, you can bet (the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs) would have been notified.”

On Aug. 4, an inspector came to the Hockaday home and did a series of energy tests.

“On his way out the door, he told us it was one of the nicest homes he had been in since he started doing the inspections,” Brandi said. “He said, if anything, we’d probably be eligible for low-energy light bulbs.”

Unknown to the Hockadays at the time, Austin Energy was under threat of having its $5.9-million stimulus grant yanked by Housing and Community Affairs. Texas Watchdog reported Austin Energy had managed to weatherize just 56 homes in the 18 months since the stimulus bill passed. Only four of the 44 agencies in the weatherization program had done fewer homes.

In the first year of the stimulus, contractors statewide had spent $3.7 million, mostly on administrative costs, and had weatherized 47 houses. Program directors from all over the state complained they were under tremendous pressure by Housing and Community Affairs to spend their stimulus grants.

“Is time running out for this program? Absolutely,” state program director Michael Gerber said of Austin Energy at the time. “We will de-obligate funds before we let one penny of this funding go unspent.”

Two months after the initial inspection, Robert Meredith, the owner of a second contractor, Go Green Squads, came to the Hockadays’ door with good news. The initial tests showed they qualified for a new air conditioning system.

The air conditioning system they had was working fine, Byron said. The inside unit had been replaced in 2008, and the outer unit had been repaired in the past couple of years.

Meredith, Byron said, pressed them to decide. A new energy-efficient system would help them realize hundreds of dollars in savings.

“He said we were about to lose this if we didn’t decide and that we had to get this done,” Byron says. “My initial reaction,” Brandi said, finishing his thought, “was ‘Wow. Awesome.’ Byron’s reaction was, don’t muck around with it. I love my AC. Byron gave in.”

A ‘deceptively complex’ government program

At no time did Austin Energy officials issue a directive to speed up or increase spending on the units they were weatherizing, Guerrero said. The decision to install a new air conditioning system in the Hockaday home was based on calculations punched into thresholds set by the federal government, nothing more, Guerrero said.

Susan Meredith, Meredith’s wife and the company’s co-owner, said Austin Energy gave the company 10 days from the time a work order was generated to start work. Never did Austin Energy call for spending over and above that recommended on the work orders, she says.

On Oct. 8, 2010, Go Green Squads installed an new air conditioning system and thermostats. The $2,433.27 bill was paid by the federal program, which allowed for a maximum of $6,500 to be spent on each housing unit.

“And for nine months we thought it was the best program in the world,” Brandi said. “We felt like we won the lottery.”

Until the day Byron came home and felt warm. The Hockadays regularly set their thermostat at 75 degrees. The temperature read 77 degrees, and to get there the air conditioning unit was running for hours at a time without cycling off.

Thus began a series of calls and responses from contract workers. They did temperature readings. The had Byron seal and insulate the attic door. They had the ductwork checked. The plenum, an air circulation chamber in the attic, was rebuilt. Several times.

During these months of trial and error, the Hockadays reported condensation on their vents and a musty smell in the house.

Around one of the openings in the attic, Byron found black soot he thought was mold. The contractors insisted it be referred to as a mold-like substance. In January, the Hockadays had tests done that determined the mold-like substance was actually mold.

At the same time, the Hockadays’ monthly utility bills were now higher than it was before all the work was done.

In the absence of solutions, Byron offered troubleshooting suggestions like checking the coil that were routinely ignored, he said. It seemed as though the workmen were going through the same motions again and again. During one visit, insults were exchanged and challenges made before Byron and a crew member could be calmed down.

“They were coming here all the time, all different times of day. They’d never call, they’d just show up. Then they never did anything. It was like watching monkeys hump a football,” Byron said.

From then on, Brandi systematically worked her way up alerting the chain of command at Austin Energy to their problems.

On Dec. 20, 2011, Austin Energy ordered another full inspection of the home and followed it with a systematic retracing of all the steps that had so far bedeviled the other contractors.

But not until March 20, did the company reach the conclusion that the air conditioning system installed by Go Green Squads needed to be replaced. The coil Byron had been pointing to was designed for a 4-ton air conditioning system. It had been trying to cool the house in a 3-ton system.

“There definitely was a problem with the system,” Susan Meredith said. “And we were very committed to fixing their system. But there are so many different factors involved. That is why I say this is a deceptively complex program.”

Austin Energy decided that it wouldn’t be Go Green Systems but McCullough Heating and Air Conditioning that would install not only a new air conditioning system but a new furnace as well.

The cost, $8,604.81, was more than three times the first system. The company did some additional calculating and cut two checks to the Hockadays totalling $453.58, an estimate of the cost of the additional energy consumed by the old system.

In all, Austin Energy turned over just $3,000 in bills for the Hockaday work to Housing and Community Affairs for federal reimbursement. Austin Energy assumed the rest.

Guerrero said he didn’t want the blot on a program he is proud of.

“I thought it was in the interest of everyone involved that we change out the equipment for a new system,” Guerrero says. “Our goal was to satisfy a customer who had some extreme concerns. I think that by looking at the facts of the case alone, this was not a normal course of business for us.”

By the overall standard of Austin Energy work, the Hockadays weren’t normal business. Of the 1,886 units weatherized with stimulus funds, Austin Energy went over the $6,500 budget 13 times, a check of the records by Texas Watchdog showed.

Nine of the thirteen were total bills under $7,000, one of them over the limit by 83 cents.

Despite its slow start and by the decidedly low standard set by a program beset throughout with administrative incompetence, poor workmanship and allegations of fraud, Austin Energy was a solid performer.

(You can track the program’s performance and that of all the other local programs in the Weatherization Assistance Program in charts provided here.)

Once threatened with a loss of funding, Housing and Community Affairs eventually shifted more than $3 million more from laggard programs to Austin Energy. The program spent all but $1,100 of its $9.2 million, Guerrero said.

And while Texas Watchdog tracked a rather dismal record of workmanship problems statewide, Austin Energy performed better than most. (You can examine the results of eight spot inspections of contractor work done by the Department of Housing and Community Affairs did over two years here.)

“One house out of all those we worked on is a pretty good record, I think,” Guerrero said.

Utility: Responsibilities fulfilled

But what of the record at that one house?

In the weeks that followed, the Hockadays discovered a water buildup in a garage ceiling that showered water and sopping drywall on computer hardware Byron had stored there. Negotiation with the contractor for reimbursement came to an impasse when the Hockadays wouldn’t surrender the hard drives for replacement.

McCullough tracked the moisture problem, and in July rebuilt the plenum, return and filter system.

The installation of the air conditioning system, Byron said, has juxtaposed an air line unsafely with a gas line running to the new furnace. The Hockadays have demanded an inspection. McCullough insisted they already deemed the parallel lines safe.

The Hockaday home gets cool, with digital thermostats festooning the house to prove it. But Byron swears this new, top-of-the-line energy efficient air conditioner still cycles for hours.

It is December, and in the cool weather the Hockadays can’t be sure, but all of that cycling, Byron said, isn’t going to save them any money come summer.

And if something more should go wrong, Austin Energy has said it won’t be coming around any more.

In the hundreds of units done by Go Green Squads as one of the six contractors used by Austin Energy, Susan Meredith says she never experienced anything like the Hockadays.

Understanding the cold calculating of eligibility and rehabilitation, Meredith still wonders if this program ought to have been serving a family like the Hockadays. She thinks the couple knew what they were doing, that they “gamed the system.”

Austin Energy and its contractors, she said, were caught in the classic quandary: Was there too much government or not enough government?

“In hindsight we shouldn’t have bent over backwards,” she said. “We spent so many hundreds of dollars we didn’t bill for trying to make them happy. All we did was create a bigger problem.”

The weatherization assistance program, at least at the start, would not allow anyone to walk away from the Hockadays, Guerrero said. Austin Energy, he said, has more than fulfilled its responsibilities.

The Hockadays do not believe that. It takes them nearly three hours on the sofa to tell their story, and only because they are forced to leave out all sorts of details. The Hockadays are consumed by the details.

Brandi is working again, at home and as a virtual assistant at a fraction of her old salary, she said. Byron is still working to make a go of his business. Their combined income, Brandi said, would easily make them eligible for the Weatherization Assistance Program if it were available today.

Knowing what they know now, the Hockadays said they would have never applied for the program. But having done it, having gone through it, they aren’t about to give up.

“From the time we applied, all we expected them to do is do their job right,” Byron said. “That’s all we asked all along. I don’t think that’s too much to expect. Do you?”

Contact Mark Lisheron at mark@texaswatchdog.org or 512-299-2318 or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Mark Lisheron

  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.shelton.1690 Mike Shelton

    Austin Energy, a public utility owned by the City of Austin, in the most liberal county (Travis) in the state…sounds like the Hockadays got what they voted for–great big government! When you bureaucratize everything, don’t expect them not to act like bureaucrats! I did laugh my ass off at this line: “Austin Energy and its contractors, she said, were caught in the classic quandary: Was there too much government or not enough government?”