• Pushing for change
    April 09,2014

    While more seasonal temperatures have shifted our thoughts toward spring and summer, weatherizing homes for colder months still is very much on the minds of advocates for l ow-income Vermonters.

    Today, the state’s Weatherization Assistance Program is working toward a goal of weatherizing 14,850 more low-income units by 2020 as part of a mandate by the governor. That’s more than 2,000 households per year that need weatherization.

    The state’s energy challenges are unique. Vermont ranks 50th in the nation in energy affordability; households below 200 percent of the poverty level spend $3,214 more on energy bills each year than what is considered affordable; and the state has the second-oldest housing stock in the nation.

    The current cost to weatherize a home is about $8,500. To continue to stay on track to meet the goal, the program, which employs about 150 people statewide in livable wage jobs, needs $12 million a year to maintain the program. In fiscal year 2014, the allocation came from the 0.5 percent fuel gross receipts tax on all non-transportation fuels sold in the state, as well as Green Mountain Power-Central Vermont Public Service merger money.

    The Weatherization Assistance Program has been wildly successful across Vermont. In part, it was temporarily funded with federal stimulus money, which gave the state a strong start five years ago toward its weatherization goals. Now that the one-time stimulus money has dried up, the demand for services has remained. In turn, Vermonters were suddenly faced with long waiting lists.

    However, low-income Vermonters who had their homes weatherized through the program are experiencing an average of 37 percent energy savings, or more than $1,000 a year on energy costs. That translates to about 270 gallons of No. 2 heating fuel, or almost 465,000 gallons for all homes weatherized in the program just last year. That stretches heating aid dollars by reducing the overall cost of heating Vermonters’ homes.

    Those are all measurable assets.

    Yet, there has been talk around the State House of reducing the funding for the Weatherization Assistance Program. That seems like the wrong decision, when the results have been markedly positive. One option for continuing the weatherization fund at current levels is to raise the gross receipts tax to 1 percent and dedicate the money to the program. It makes sense: The funding mechanism is already in place, and the 0.5 percentage point increase would allow the program and other partners to help the state meet its goal of weatherizing 80,000 homes by 2020, advocates say.

    The state’s Climate Caucus, a bipartisan group of legislators from both chambers, recently urged support for funding the program at the $12 million level; however, in its letter to House Speaker Shap Smith, it fell short of calling for an increase in the gross receipts tax. In addition, a coalition of about 35 organizations that work or advocate for low-income Vermonters made a plea for the full funding. That group did propose increasing the gross receipts tax to 1 percent.

    According to the Department of Taxes, the gross receipts tax is currently 0.5 percent on heating oil, kerosene and other dyed diesel fuels delivered to a business or residence; natural gas; propane; electricity and coal. Most Vermont households spend between $700 and $2,800 a year on heating fuel, so a tax of 1 percent would amount to approximtely $14 a year for the average family.

    Increasing the tax does not require rewriting our energy policy. It may mean starting hard discussion among lawmakers and the administration about what’s best for our citizens. But in this case, a slight tweak to a statute is a minimal increase for a long-term solution that moves the growing number of Vermonters out of poverty. That’s a win-win.

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