Wood County officials consider leaving energy program

PARKERSBURG – Concerns over grant requirement compliance, hiring practices and other issues have Wood County commissioners pondering whether to pull out of the SMART Energy Solutions Program.

The program provides education and energy assessments for middle-income homeowners in a partnership with the Energy Assessment Program at West Virginia University at Parkersburg. Students in the program are paid to conduct the energy audits.

The county was a sponsor for two $10,000 grants from the federal Department of Energy awarded through the state in January. A local match of $2,000 is required for each grant.

Commissioner Steve Gainer said he was unaware the students were paid.

“I thought they were doing it as part of their classroom work. Why weren’t we told they were being paid? And now you’re asking us to hire these people,” Gainer asked commission President Wayne Dunn, who has spearheaded the program.

Dunn said he was informed the students must be placed under the county’s auspices if the grant is to continue. Dunn said no funds have been taken from the reimbursement grants.

The grant expires at the end of this month. The program must have completed a minimum of 20 audits by that time or the grant funding will be lost.

“There were concerns about the students using their personal cars to drive to the audit sites. Our insurance provider is also concerned about a number of liability issues, having students in people’s homes without the homeowner signing an agreement and a number of other issues,” Commissioner Blair Couch said.

Gainer said he was also unaware Dunn hired the office manager at his dental practice to coordinator the energy program.

Dunn said she was available, willing to do the work and was “doing an excellent job.”

Dunn has paid her $2,000 out of the program. He said the agreement for her employment was to pay her $4,000.

Wood County Prosecutor Jason Wharton said because she was paid with a check from the county commission, she is a county employee and must meet related IRS and other requirements.

“She is in essence doing two jobs. You would not allow another county employee to hold two jobs,” Wharton said.

Dunn said if the county pulls out of the program and the grant is lost, the homeowners who paid $200 each for their energy audits cannot be reimbursed. Dunn said he would not seek reimbursement for the audit payments he made on three of his properties.

Under the grant, the audits were to cost $600. Copies of checks for Dunn’s audits are part of the records. The grant states no one affiliated with the program is to have an interest in or benefit from the program.

Dunn said his audits were done prior to the grant and were not part of the grant.

Wharton said the audits on Dunn’s properties were listed under the grant documents.

Gary Thompson of the WVU-Parkersburg Energy Assessment Program oversees the students who perform the audits. Wharton asked Thompson if he paid for the audit performed on his property.

Thompson said he did pay and had the canceled check to prove it.

“That is not listed on the ledger,” Wharton said.

“Then the ledger is wrong,” Thompson replied.

In July, Wharton informed the commission he met with Dunn and there were concerns relating to the program, including Dunn keeping program records at his home. At that time, Wharton asked the commission to consider whether it wished to remain in the program.

At their Aug. 1 meeting, commissioners said they wanted to continue in the program, but asked Dunn to turn the records over to the county and to run purchase orders and other transactions through the county’s established system.

Dunn said Monday he has turned over all the records. Couch and Wood County Clerk Mark Rhodes confirmed the records were received but they are copies, not the originals. Couch urged Dunn to provide the originals of the records to the county.

Wharton said there is no record of the commission having accepted the grants. The prosecutor said the grant documents were signed by Dunn, in his capacity as county commission president, without the commissioners filing an order authorizing him to sign and the papers were signed on Martin Luther King’s birthday, a county holiday when the commission was not in session.

Dunn said the program was originally to be independent, with CRI doing the energy assessments.

“They backed out and once we applied for the federal grant that changed things quite dramatically,” Dunn said. “This is a pilot program. We met with the Department of Energy. I think they want us to continue, but they said we had to be under the county.”

Dunn was asked about the committee he said was overseeing the program. He was asked if the individuals on the committee or the meeting dates of the committee were on file.

Dunn said he did not know.

“There are just too many unanswered questions; so much you’re doing, I don’t even know about,” Gainer said.

Couch said there are unpaid bills which had not been run through the county purchasing system for approval.

Wharton said Dunn opened a checking account with the county’s name on it without authorization from the commission.

“This all puts us in an awkward spot. We have to decide if we are going to go forward,” Couch said, noting violations of the grant agreement would mean loss of the grant and could jeopardize future grant possibilities for the county.

Couch suggested the commission might consider re-applying for the grant in the next fiscal year.

“I am concerned if the county decides to continue with this, you need to make sure you have these agreements in place for the auditors, and that you are following standard county practices and policies,” Wharton said.

“I just don’t think there are problems; this is a good program. But Blair has brought up some valid points,” Dunn said.

“How could you not see problems with this; this is full of problems,” Gainer said.

Couch said unpaid invoices need to be paid and asked County Administrator Marty Suefer to contact the state grant coordinator for direction.

“I think maybe we need to just pay the bills and get clear out of it,” Gainer said.

“Until additional documents are received, and insurance and other issues are addressed, I don’t recommend the county hire auditors under the county. We’re not the ones that waited until two weeks before the end of the grant period without having the required number of audits being completed,” Wharton said.