Energy aid programs fall to budget cutsWith its federal funding drying up, Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency is downsizing.
By: Candace Renalls, Duluth News Tribune
With its federal funding drying up, Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency is downsizing.
AEOA has closed its Duluth office, which operated home weatherization and energy assistance programs in the Duluth area for low to moderate income families.
“We scaled back, there was a number of layoffs,” said Steve Raukar, the nonprofit’s board chairman. “It’s unfortunate. We basically hung on as long as we could.”
The office, in West Duluth, closed Feb. 14, the same day its staff of about 10 were abruptly laid off, though half have since been reassigned, officials say. Those laid off include weatherization auditors, production managers and work crews.
Still, the AEOA services will continue in the Duluth area for the time being.
AEOA’s larger Gilbert office will now handle the weatherization and energy assistance programs for all of St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties, with crews traveling from the Iron Range to assess and weatherize homes throughout its 10,000-square-mile region. The program provides home energy audits and weatherproofs homes of clients below certain income levels, including $42,789 for a family of four and $22,250 for a single person.
But AEOA’s lack of an office in Duluth was short-lived.
Thanks to the city of Duluth’s creation of the Housing Resource Connection, a one-stop shop for housing assistance in the former Central Hillside Community Center, AEOA set up a small office there this week where people can apply for weatherization and energy assistance.
The rent is a fraction of what AEOA was paying at its previous office at 3112 Truck Center Drive, said Scott Zahorik, director of AEOA’s housing services.
The Housing Resource Center at Lake Avenue and Fourth Street also houses Common Ground and One Roof Community Housing. The Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority and the city’s community development division also have a presence there.
“The city is trying to nudge everyone along to get all the housing resources in one building,” Zahorik said.
So far, it’s working well, said Keith Hamre, the city’s director of planning and construction.
“It’s a way to utilize the strengths of each agency,” he said. “Having all those groups together, it’s the next step in the collaborative evolution of these groups.”
AEOA’s downsizing follows boom years when stimulus money from the U.S. Department of Energy flowed into nonprofit programs like AEOA’s.
“That really grew the weatherization program,” Zahorik said. “Seven years of work was done in two years. The program virtually exploded for a couple of years, and now we’re on the downside.”
Actually, it’s worse than that.
Funding plummeted last year after Minnesota was denied federal funding for weatherization programs.
“We were able to continue with carry-over dollars for four or five months,” said Harlan Tardy, AEOA’s executive director. “That allowed us to keep it open longer. But those dollars expired. It forced us to close that office.”
Now AEOA’s programs are among the many programs facing blanket cuts from sequestration, the automatic, across-the-board federal budget cuts that are under way.
“We’re in the great unknown,” Zahorik said. “So what we’re trying to do is be proactive, be as frugal as we can while we wait and see if and how much the program is funded this year.”
AEOA has enough funding left to keep the free weatherization program going for a few more months, bringing AEOA to the start of its July 1 funding cycle, he said.
Sequestration cuts also stand to affect its energy assistance efforts — which is a seasonal program with a largely seasonal staff — and other AEOA programs like Meals on Wheels.