Contractor says weatherization group decried as ‘slush fund for Democrats’ is nonpolitcal

Posted Feb. 17, 2011, at 10:29 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 18, 2011, at 8:17 a.m.

AUGUSTA,  Maine — As a building contractor in Maine, Dave Ireland knows all too well that winter’s arrival typically means laying off employees until warmer weather signals the start of a new construction season.

But for the first time in a decade, Ireland was able to keep all 10 employees at his Lincoln company working through the winter thanks, in no small part, to household weatherization clients he picked up through the Maine Green Energy Alliance.

So Ireland, a Republican, said he was frustrated and dismayed when he heard political accusations being leveled against the energy alliance by leaders of his own party. Ireland said he regularly encounters homeowners forced to decide between paying for heat, medications or food.

“When you can cut a home’s energy bill by 40, 50 or 60 percent, some of these people have tears in their eyes,” Ireland said. “Really what should be happening in Augusta is for them to come up with creative ways to keep these programs going rather than conduct a witch hunt into the Maine Green Energy Alliance.”

The alliance, or MGEA, was launched as a nonprofit service to connect homeowners with energy auditors or weatherization contractors. But the alliance has become a political lightning rod in recent days, with the Maine GOP sending out daily press releases accusing alliance leaders of running a “slush fund” for Democratic lawmakers and political insiders.

One frequent target of state GOP chairman Charlie Webster is Rep. Emily Cain, an Orono Democrat who contracted with Ireland for a home energy audit. Cain and her husband paid Ireland — not the alliance — for the audit but did not go forward with the recommended weatherization upgrades due to the costs.

Webster has suggested that Cain and other Democratic leaders had a too-cozy relationship with the alliance, which received $3 million from a federal grant and has employed several current or former Democratic lawmakers.

Cain has responded in kind, including accusing Webster on Thursday of “trying to create scandal out of coincidental events in order to demonize Democratic legislators and private businesspeople for political gain.”

Ireland said there was nothing political about his dealings with the alliance or with Cain.

“She paid full price — just like any other person — for the energy audit,” Ireland said.

Cain also received a nod, of sorts, from Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who told reporters on Wednesday that the House minority leader told him personally that she paid for the energy audit.

“I buy it, I believe her,” LePage said. “I have no reason not to.”

Lawmakers held a several-hour hearing on Thursday to grill alliance leaders and representatives from the Maine Efficiency Trust, the state program responsible for administering efficiency programs in the state.

The MGEA program, which was discontinued, was credited with helping connect 50 homeowners who retrofitted their houses to increase their energy efficiency — well short of the stated goal of 1,000 homes.

Cain was not among those 50, but 10 of Ireland’s retrofit clients were referred through MGEA, he said.

Ireland stressed on Thursday that MGEA was only the referral agent and that no money changed hands between his company or the alliance. But he said the organization has helped him and other contractors during tough economic times.

“They drummed up a lot of business for us,” he said.

Still, the alliance hasn’t had universal support in Maine’s growing weatherization industry.

“I really didn’t think they deserved to get $3 million because they had no experience and there were a lot of hard-working people out there” already working in the industry, said Richard Riegel Burbank, president of Evergreen Home Performance in Rockland.

Burbank, who is heavily involved in energy efficiency programs both in Maine and nationally, said he understands that the alliance was trying to provide assistance. But he found that, at least in his case, the group was serving more as a “middle man” between the consumer and the auditors or contractors.

That said, Burbank acknowledged that the program was effective at helping connect some contractors, such as Ireland, with additional clients in the communities targeted by the program. And while he didn’t see much value in the alliance’s work, Burbank said he never observed any political favors being handed out.

Burbank said he believes the problems posed by MGEA were alleviated with the creation of the Efficiency Maine Trust, an independent agency and board of directors created by the Legislature in 2009 to administer energy efficiency programs in the state.

Curry Caputo, president of Maine Association of Building Efficiency Professionals that represents more than 150 professionals in the trade, also said he believes the decision to shut down the MGEA program was the right one.

“We’re glad these funds have been redirected toward actual energy efficiency work, rather than for administration and community organizing,” Caputo, principal with Sustainable Structures Inc., said in a statement. “We never did understand why the federal government awarded MGEA a grant to promote a program which Efficiency Maine was already charged with promoting and administering.”

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