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By Chuck Haga, Forum Communications Co., Published February 26 2010

Crookston weatherization program on ice

CROOKSTON, Minn. – A federally funded home weatherization program based in Crookston has been on hold since November as Minnesota Commerce Department auditors investigate problems in tracking the money, including a large infusion last year of stimulus funding.

The problems involve “deficiencies in record-keeping and accounting” discovered by a state auditor who reviewed the books at Tri-Valley Opportunity Council, a not-for-profit community action agency serving west Marshall, west Polk and Norman counties.

“We’ve been up there working with them,” Nicole Garrison-Sprenger, communications director for the state Department of Commerce, confirmed this week.

A department auditor “was up there doing regular monitoring (last fall) and raised questions,” she said. “We always want to make sure we can track how the money is being used, and the paperwork wasn’t there.

“We’re not saying anybody did anything wrong. They didn’t have the records we wanted.”

Dennis DeMers, chief executive officer of Tri-Valley, said the agency is cooperating with the investigation.

“I think we screwed up,” he said.

The Commerce Department “found some irregularities in our documentation and initiated an investigation. They did suspend payments to us and said they would not be able to release more funds” until problems were resolved.

“We had some internal controls that did not have good checks and balances,” DeMers said. “Those have been taken care of. What we’re doing now is going back and fixing the mistakes we made to get back in the saddle and get on with the business of helping people.”

DeMers said “as far as I know” no money is missing or was otherwise misappropriated.

While the agency has not been able to take on additional home weatherization projects, more had been done in the last half of 2009 than in the previous year, he said, “and my guess is that people haven’t felt any impact.”

In Polk, Norman, Marshall counties Garrison-Sprenger said the Commerce Department funnels the state’s weatherization money through 32 service providers, including Tri-Valley in Crookston.

As a weatherization grantee, the agency identifies and seeks to remedy causes of energy loss in low-income homes. People eligible to receive energy assistance, another agency program using pass-through state and federal funds, are eligible for weatherization help.

For fiscal 2009 and 2010, Tri-Valley was to receive about $1.8 million in weatherization funds, Garrison-Sprenger said. Through Nov. 5 – when Tri-Valley’s funding was suspended – $370,000 had been used.

Elsewhere in the state, federal wage requirements, state and local budget shortfalls and employee furloughs are blamed for the use so far of just 8 percent of the

$132 million in stimulus funding awarded to Minnesota a year ago.

That’s a better record than other states can claim, however, and in January the U.S. Department of Energy recognized Minnesota as one of the top performers in putting weatherization funds to work.

Weatherization assistance is a relatively small part of the agency’s activities. In fiscal 2008, Tri-Valley spent about $15 million on various activities, according to the Commerce Department, of which $612,000 went to energy assistance and weatherization.

Late last year, Tri-Valley announced that it would receive almost $3 million in stimulus funds to identify pregnant women, infants and toddlers for participation in a comprehensive, year-round system of services to boost the children’s readiness for school.

Part of the award was designated for a project involving migrant and seasonal farm worker families in central Minnesota. Another part is to be used to identify and serve 72 children in East Grand Forks, Crookston, Norman County and Owatonna, Minn.

Chuck Haga is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.