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Home / Articles / News / Local News /  Stimulus Snafu
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According to a January 2011 study prepared for the US government by Global Energy Partners, New Mexico could save up to 2,656 gigawatt-hours of electricity by 2025—if it implements energy-efficiency measures. That’s enough to power all of the state’s low-income homes for a year. In 2009, nearly 300,000 low-income residential electricity consumers in New Mexico used just 2,292 gigawatt-hours.
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Stimulus Snafu

Was federal funding used for green building...or against it?

July 20, 2011, 2:00 am
Did the state of New Mexico spend nearly half a million dollars of federal stimulus money to accomplish exactly the opposite of what the federal award required?

That’s the allegation leveled at state officials who recently made a key change to the contract of the state’s green building coordinator.

In 2008, the federal government gave New Mexico $430,000 in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money to hire a green building coordinator whose goal would be to help boost energy efficiency in new construction.

The Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department and the Regulation and Licensing Department administered the two-year contract, which called for the coordinator to develop state-specific recommendations and conduct trainings for contractors, consumers and code officials around the state regarding energy efficiency.

Specifically, the coordinator was to help fulfill the 2009 New Mexico Energy Conservation Code, which the state Construction Industries Commission passed in 2010. The code, which was widely praised at the time, required builders to achieve 20 percent higher efficiency on new construction than international standards require.

Since its creation, the green building coordinator position has been filled by Maire Claire Voorhees, who works out of the Regulation and Licensing Department and answers to RLD Secretary Dee Dennis. As part of her work and to qualify for the stimulus money, Voorhees is required to file detailed weekly reports on her activities to increase energy efficiency.

But in June, things changed. First, state officials amended Voorhees’ contract to eliminate the 20 percent provision in the original. Less than a week later, the CIC overturned the state building code and rolled back the energy-efficient provisions.

Officials now say the state still qualifies for stimulus funds because it satisfies a basic stimulus requirement to be in 90 percent compliance with international standards. But allegations are surfacing that Voorhees actively worked to undermine the original green building codemonths before her contract was changed to reflect her new role.

Tammy Fiebelkorn, the New Mexico representative of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, worked closely with Voorhees on the original code for months. As part of her work to help implement the code, Fiebelkorn also received stimulus money from the green building coordinator program. In a June 28 letter to EMNRD program Manager Harold Trujillo, though, Fiebelkorn claims work records obtained through a public records request prove that Voorhees began working to turn the code this spring.

“In March, April and May, a seemingly large amount of [Voorhees’] time was spent analyzing rollback proposals and ensuring that all statutory and timing requirements were adhered to in the rollback process,” Fiebelkorn writes in an email to Trujillo.

State officials were well aware Voorhees was working on the rollback, Fiebelkorn saysand she questions why money allocated to encourage energy efficiency would in effect pay its green building coordinator to undermine it.

“Was the time spent in March, April and May on the rollback paid for by ARRA funds, even though that work was clearly at odds with the purpose of the contract at that time?” Fiebelkorn writes in her letter to Trujillo. “Does [the Energy Conservation and Management Division] support increased energy use, utility bill and pollution in New Mexico? If so, why? If not, how did this happen?”

According to documents obtained by SFR in a records request, other officials in state government have raised similar concerns.

On May 18, Energy Conservation and Management Division chief Fernando Martinez wrote to EMNRD Secretary John Bemis, expressing five major concerns about Voorhees’ “working outside the scope of the existing agreement.”

Martinez proposed several remedies for the situation, including ending the contract early and redirecting the money, or asking federal agencies to amend Voorhees’s contract to more accurately reflect her work.

Finally, on June 2, Bemis signed the contract change. The Energy Conservation Code was rolled back on June 8.

Voorhees is on personal leave from her job and did not respond to requests for comment.

But Dee Dennis, her boss at RLD, had this to say, via department spokesman SU Mahesh:

“The money spent under the RLD/EMNRD contract has been in compliance with ARRA and the US Department of [Energy] requirements,” Mahesh writes in an email to SFR. “RLD is focused on providing the code adoption, training and compliance per the agreement between ENMRD and DOE to better assistNew Mexico’s construction industry and building trades.”

Still, even before the energy-efficiency contract was changed, $380,000 in stimulus funds had already been spent on Voorhees’ salary and other expenses. Fiebelkorn wants to know whether that money was used properlyespecially since Voorhees’ contract still dictated that she support energy efficiency, not roll it backand what will happen to the rest of the stimulus funds.

Bemis, who signed off on the amended contract, says he has no problem with how the stimulus money was spent.

Neither, apparently, does the Department of Energy, which administers the federal energy funds to states.

Cathy Iverson, New Mexico contract supervisor at the Department of Energy offices in Golden, Colo., says she disagrees with the characterization of the amended contract as being the “opposite” of what it originally called for. Iverson says she was aware that the contract had been amended to take out the 20 percent provision and that DOE had no problem with it.

The state’s Office of Recovery and Reinvestment, which was in charge of managing the New Mexico’s estimated $3.9 billion in direct stimulus awards, said last week it would have no comment on the contract change.

Fiebelkorn, though, says it’s shameful that the state used the green building coordinator money to torpedo an energy-efficient building code that was considered a model for the rest of the nation.

“I think it’s really sad that the state of New Mexico spent so much stimulus money to roll back a building code that would have helped the environment and saved New Mexicans millions of dollars in energy costs,” she says.

 

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