Contracting glitch leads to demand for payment on free D.C. energy audits

By Phillip Lucas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2010

Hundreds of District homeowners signed up for free household energy audits last year through the D.C. Department of the Environment -- some hoping to cut their utility bills, some to be "greener" and some because it was free.

But this month, instead of the energy assessments they were promised, more than 100 homeowners received letters saying that liens had been filed on their property because the city never paid a contractor for doing the work.

Patuxent Environmental Group Energy Solutions sent letters to participants in the audit program telling them that the city was required to pay the cost of the audits -- about $310 each, according to the D.C. Department of the Environment. The letter said that because the city hadn't paid Patuxent, liens would be filed against residents' homes to recoup the costs. The letters, signed by Patuxent's vice president, JoAnn Spence, also directed all questions to the D.C. Department of the Environment.

"Honestly, I just laughed," said Emily Swartz, a Chevy Chase resident whose audit was done in January. "I'm sure it's just a last-ditch effort to get paid."

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) didn't find the letters amusing.

In a response to Patuxent on Aug. 9, she called the company's action harassment and questioned the legal basis on which it had acted.

Matthew Cooper, the company's chief executive, responded to Cheh's letter the next day, saying that the company had not actually filed liens and that Patuxent is in a valid contract dispute with the Department of the Environment over the audits.

The Fairfax-based company said it had a contract with the District. What it did not have, according to Department of the Environment officials, were purchase orders from the agency authorizing the audits it had done.

Christophe Tulou, the department's director, said the problem with the contractors arose when the department switched the source of the audit program's funding.

The program was initially funded by the Sustainable Energy Trust Fund, established by the Clean and Affordable Energy Act of 2008. The legislation included a surcharge on Pepco bills to temporarily fund the program.

Last fall, the Department of the Environment sought to use federal stimulus money for the program because funding was set to expire at the end of fiscal 2009. Tulou said that the agency has worked since late September to ensure the availability of stimulus funding for the program but that it was waiting for government approval to use stimulus funds that way when the audits were performed.

"That's literally this week getting resolved, so we'll have people out doing audits soon," Tulou said.

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