Using stimulus money, nonprofit to expand weatherization (Billings Gazette)

By JAN FALSTAD

As federal stimulus money begins trickling into Montana, a local nonprofit plans to make three times as many houses more energy-efficient.

And 200 low-income or at-risk youth from Yellowstone County and four surrounding counties could bring home at least $1,200 each from a summer jobs program that was canceled nearly a decade ago.

Last year, the Region 7 Human Resources Development Council along First Avenue North between North 31st and North 32nd Street spent $1,276,575 to weatherize homes for the elderly and disadvantaged. With the help of the federal funds, that budget is expected to increase to $2,831,854 for each of the next two years. That increase of nearly $1.56 million per year will allow HRDC to insulate as many as 900 homes annually, compared to the usual 300, said weatherization director Wayne Schmidt.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., toured the HRDC weatherization plant Wednesday and visited with employees.

"This bill puts people to work and invests in local communities," Tester said. "There is nothing better you can do in a northern-tier state than to weatherize."

Improving a home's insulation can cut energy bills an average of 32 percent per year. So far, the HRDC has weatherized more than 8,000 homes. There is a waiting list of 2,500 homes, and some eligible low-income or elderly residents must wait up to four years to help.

Also under the jobs bill, the maximum expenditure per house will climb from an average of $3,000 to $6,500.

"That's a big deal because sometimes we had to walk away from homes before the work was done," HRDC Chief Executive Carl Visser said.

With the stimulus money, the nonprofit has hired five more weatherization workers and a fiscal specialist to handle the paperwork, and it will be hiring at least one more worker in Billings and at least two more for a satellite program in Hardin.

The council used to have trouble finding qualified workers, but when the handful of carpenter jobs were advertised in February, 50 people applied.

In addition to the weatherization money, HRDC also will receive $387,000 to fund an eight-week summer jobs program designed to help disadvantaged youth. The program was eliminated in 2000 due to a lack of funding.

"That money will pay minimum wage of $7.15 to about 200 youth from five counties," Visser said. "They might be cleaning up city and county property or helping nonprofits like ours."

Young people ages 14 to 24 can apply for the jobs through HRDC starting May 1. Workers up to age 17 will work 24 hours and can bring home $1,200 this summer, Visser said.

Although disadvantaged youth from all five counties in District 7 can apply for the summer work, Visser said more jobs will be filled in Yellowstone County because an estimated 75 percent of the disadvantaged youth live here. HRDC District 7 represents disadvantaged people in Yellowstone, Stillwater, Carbon, Sweet Grass and Big Horn counties.

This jobs program also will employ four additional temporary summer counselors, Visser said.

HRDC had 13 employees working in weatherization in Billings before hiring five more. Also, C C Insulation & Urethane Inc. in Lockwood expanded to keep up with the added orders from HRDC's weatherization program.

"I added a new truck, an insulation-blowing machine and two workers," said president and co-owner Jon Sherner.

The Montana Legislature must give its approval to the federal stimulus money before the funds can officially be awarded, but HRDC has been hiring workers and has purchased seven vans, both new and used, since February.

"We're just waiting on the final approval from the Montana Legislature," Visser said.

Tester, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, voted for the jobs bill that spends $787 billion nationwide with at least $626 million coming to Montana.

After a career as a carpenter, Mike Milohov of Billings unsuccessfully searched for work nearly three months. Finally, HRDC hired him off the unemployment line to work in weatherization.

"I'm just happy to get a job. I've been doing this work for 30 years," Milohov said.