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Mixed messages raise questions about state energy rebate program

Alex DeMarban

ANALYSIS: The Alaska Housing Finance Corp. is close to royally screwing Alaskans participating in an expansion of the popular home energy rebate program. I know because I'm one of them.

The state agency falls under the Dan Fauske empire. Fauske, AHFC's CEO, has been referred to as the "czar of competence" by at least one Alaska lawmaker for putting the housing authority on solid financial footing. The Alaska Legislature trusts Fauske so much they put him in charge of another huge project that has nothing to do with housing -- the $8 billion in-state gasline project. 

Competent is not how I'd describe my current experience with AHFC. What's happened may have nothing to do with Fauske, but it raises questions about management, including whether there's an unexpected shortage of money to cover commitments. 

State lawmakers created the home energy program in 2008, providing a generous subsidy to encourage homeowners to make their dwelling more heat-efficient. It's been a resounding success, reducing pollution, fuel use, and home energy costs. It's pumped money into the economy, too.

On Jan. 11, the agency announced an expansion to the program, issuing a press release that the media and other groups widely publicized, often word for word. It said the expansion became effective on Jan. 11, and that Alaska homeowners who previously took advantage of the rebate program and "have since built or purchased a new or existing home" would be eligible a second time. 

That sounded perfect for my family. We participated in the program in 2008, making improvements that included buying an on-demand furnace to heat our water and home. In return, the state reimbursed more than half the roughly $12,000 cost. Agency workers were helpful, and we got paid quickly.

In 2011, we bought a different home. This one was built in 1970 and contained an old fire-breathing boiler and water heater. Earlier this year, we learned about the expanded program. Like other Alaskans, we signed up a second time. 

We acquired the paperwork from AHFC, paid $500 for an energy rater to recommend improvements, and spent several weeks researching efficient boilers and gathering contractors' bids. I talked to AHFC staff several times, including to make sure we met the criteria for applying and to get help filling out and turning in paperwork. 

On Friday, my wife and I finally pulled the trigger. We'd buy a 95-percent efficient boiler that captures waste moisture to help with heating. It'd slice more than $100 each month off of winter heating bills. She went to a heating contractor, took a deep breath, and plunked down a payment of $14,000. 

But shortly after we'd made that payment, my jaw dropped. An AHFC employee I spoke with said "management" had just informed staff that, in order for a homeowner to participate a second time, they must have purchased their home on Jan. 11 or later. 

I was stunned. This rule came out of nowhere, affecting me and other Alaskans. For us, it meant our family wouldn’t get the $4,000 reimbursement, or possibly more, we'd counted on. That subsidy, of course, was what prompted us to look for a new system in the first place. 

In all my talks with AHFC staff, they'd never mentioned homes had to be purchased on Jan. 11 or later, no surprise since they apparently only heard about it last week. 

But lo and behold, the rule is now stated on AHFC's website, though slightly in error. It says the new opportunity applies to homeowners who have purchased a new primary residence "after Jan. 11." That of course, means Jan. 12.

After getting over my shock, I spoke with a manager, who pointed out that the Jan. 11 announcement said the expansion began that day. Therefore, the manager reasoned, that meant homes had to be purchased starting Jan. 11. 

If that's what the announcement meant, it should have said that. But it didn't. In fact, it gave no date on when the second home had to be purchased. 

There's another flaw in AHFC's announcement, too, which was received at the Alaska Dispatch at 10:15 a.m. that day.

“This is big news for Alaskans who have recently or are moving," Fauske said in the statement. There's not a word missing in that statement -- that's how it was sent to the press.

If homeowners had to have purchased their homes on Jan. 11 or later, why would Fauske say, early in the work day on Jan. 11, that the expansion applies to those who have recently moved? Was he referring to the few Alaskans (if any) who bought a home that morning, before the announcement was made? 

On Monday, I sent a written appeal to the agency to remain in the program. We'll see what they say. I'm hoping it has nothing to do with cash-flow problems, and instead boils down to nothing more than bad communication.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.comContact Alex Demarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com