Last updated: August 28. 2014 6:54AM - 790 Views
By J.L. Pate

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LUMBERTON — A $1.7-million contract for federal weatherization assistance funds has been awarded to Cumberland Community Action Program following a bidding process initiated after the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources chose not to renew a contract held for eight years with Lumberton-based Southeastern Community & Family Services Inc.

The agency was one of two others to bid on the contract, the other being the Lumber River Council of Governments, according to Drew Elliot, a spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The department distributes the funds to local agencies along with the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Elliott declined to discuss what prompted NC DENR to rebid the contract in the state’s southeast region, nor would he comment on whether a February state audit detailing the mismanagement of $4.8 million in funds from 2009-2012 played any role in DENR’s seeking a new agency to administer the program.

But executive director Erica Whitaker said in a statement posted on the agency’s website that Southeastern lost their contract bid because changes recommended by the audit did not happen fast enough.

“Over the last eight months since my arrival, I have been assessing … our programs, making changes where necessary and enforcing program policies to ensure that our clients are being served properly and that programs are operating according to regulations,’’ the statement reads. “Unfortunately, improvements to our weatherization program were not in effect at the time of the re-compete process.’’

Whitaker was hired in February, shortly before the audit was complete and months after the firing of long-time executive director Richard Greene. Among discrepancies named in the audit, it identified contractors paid by the agency for weatherization work that was never performed.

The agency, which had operated under the name Four-County Community Services Inc., since 1975, changed its name in June after a move from their long-held location of downtown Laurinburg to downtown Lumberton. Jason King, an assistant Robeson County manager who serves as chairman of the agency’s board of directors, said at the time the name change was to reflect an agency that services more than four counties. The move, he said, was to a more centralized location.

Jill Morris, the agency’s public relations consultant, said Wednesday that the loss of the weatherization contract did not result in any loss of personnel, but “there were some staff job reassignments.’’

Whitaker said changes are being made to correct deficiencies noted in the audit report, and that the agency will work through the transition of the weatherization assistance funds with Cumberland Community Action Program. The hiring of an internal auditor at DENR to monitor the state’s weatherization programs on an ongoing basis, recommended by the audit, is expected to be announced soon, Elliott said.

According to the department’s website, the state’s Weatherization Assistance Program provides weatherization services to low-income state residents, including work to reduce household energy use and costs through better insulation and other means. It also provides funds for the repair, upgrade or replacement of outdated heating or air conditioning units. Qualifications are based on income, and there is no age limit. The program is free to those who meet the income guidelines, and is implemented in all counties in the state through local agencies.

Based on data provided by Elliott, a total of 255 needy families in the seven-county region are dependent on the agency for assistance, most of them in Robeson County. Weather-related housing assistance is currently provided to 22 families in Scotland County, 91 in Robeson, 46 in Brunswick County, 37 in Columbus County, 19 in Bladen County, 19 in Hoke County and 21 in Pender.

In her statement, Whitaker said the agency weatherized a total of 273 homes last year and installed 89 heating and/or cooling systems.

In addition to the weatherization assistance programs, Southeastern Family and Community Services runs 16 Head Start facilities and provides assistance and services through funding from the Community Services Block Grant, Heating Appliance Repair and Replacement and Section 8 Housing program. The agency dispenses some $21 million in state and federal money for services in the seven-county area.

J.L. Pate can be reached at 910-506-3171.

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