Indianhead Community Action Agency and Wisconsin Department of Administration officials refuse to say why a popular home weatherization program that receives federal and state funding was abruptly reassigned to a different agency last year and the department with 24 employees shut down.

Indianhead leaders also have declined to provide potentially revealing documents about the department’s activities despite a weatherization program operation manual clearly requiring it to assist in handling Freedom of Information and Wisconsin public records law document requests under the order of “complete public access.”

Two sources confirmed the state revoked the weatherization contract with Indianhead, which is headquartered in Ladysmith and provides services to low-income households in 17 northwestern Wisconsin counties including Rusk, Burnett, Clark, Taylor, Sawyer and Washburn.

“There was a problem,” a state department employee said when asked why Indianhead no longer handles weatherization assistance.

Indianhead Community Action Agency Board Chairman David Willingham called the matter “a dispute over the contract.”

“The short version is, it was a unilateral decision by the state,” Willingham said.

The decision was made by state officials to no longer contract through Indianhead for providing weatherization services, according to Willingham.

“Right,” Willingham said. “They didn’t share. I don’t know what their substance or reasons were.”

Wisconsin Assembly Rep. Jim Edming believes the weatherization problem at Indianhead centers around the agency falling behind on payments to area businesses for materials used by agency workers to complete weatherization work.

“I know there were a lot of vendors who didn’t get paid. That is what made this pop,” Edming said.

A Ladysmith News request for documents associated with the discontinuing of the Indianhead weatherization program and annual budget audit documents for the program from 2013 through 2018, was quickly denied by the agency’s administration.

“Per our attorney’s advice, we want to inform you that we are not a federal agency nor a governmental entity and therefore not subject to FOIA or open records law.  We are a private, nonprofit 501(c)3,” Indianhead CEO Jennifer Shearer stated in an email.

Weatherization defined

The federal Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) was created in 1976 to assist low-income families who lacked resources to invest in energy efficiency. The program is operated in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Native American tribes, and U.S. territories. Funds are used to improve the energy efficiency of homes occupied by low-income households.

In Wisconsin, the program is funded with a combination of state and federal funds including U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP or EAP), state Public Benefits (PB) funding. Local vendors and retailers assist agencies that have state weatherization contracts.

When Indianhead stopped providing weatherization assistance, the counties it serves were assigned to other action agencies. North Central Community Action Agency took Rusk, Sawyer, Price and Taylor counties. Western Dairyland Community Action Agency took Clark County. West Central Community Action Agency took Burnett and Washburn counties. These agencies are all long-time participating agencies that have worked with low-income weatherization assistance.

Applicants are still able to get weatherization assistance.

Services include attic and sidewall insulation, emergency furnace repair or replacement, water heater insulation, air leakage reduction with the aid of infrared cameras, and diagnostic and safety inspections. Other services and items available through the weatherization program are replacing water heaters, freezers, refrigerators and dehumidifiers; heating system analysis and testing, replacing thermostats and air sealing. They also include installing energy efficient lighting, smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors and ventilation equipment.

Indianhead continues to promote the weatherization program on its website, even though it is not the one providing assistance. The website states its workers weatherized 211 homes in northwestern Wisconsin during 2017. The website claims homes weatherized by ICAA save an average of $550 per year in energy costs.

Weatherization applicants are directed to a local agency serving the county. About 5,000 households a year in the state are weatherized for either owners or renters.

Indianhead is one of 16 community action agencies in the state, and one of about 1,100 community action agencies in the country. Community Action Agencies were founded by the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act to fight poverty by empowerment, as part of the War on Poverty. Its mission is to assist individuals in achieving self-sufficiency by providing the resources, education and services necessary to develop healthy families, sustainable communities and strong local businesses.

Vendor reports payments

Indianhead weatherization purchased fuel at Edming Oil in Glen Flora, according to owner Marty Edming.

“I was paid,” she said. “They were [behind in payments] at one time, but they caught up.”

Marty Edming said she is not sure what happened with Indianhead and its weatherization program.

“I can’t believe it has taken this long to come out because it was a long time ago already,” she said.

Complete public access

The Wisconsin Weatherization Program Manual from November 2018 has a section on open records and public records. It states, “agencies are subject to State Public Records laws, (Wis. Stats. Chapter 19, subchapter II,  sections 19.21 through 19.39). These laws relate to record retention by the Agency and its contractors/vendors and to the provision of information (known as ‘complete public access’). An agency shall: 1)   Forward a written copy of all records requests to DOA, DEHCR or directly to DOA, Office of  the Secretary, Legal Office, P.O. Box 7864, Madison, WI 53707-7864.”

It also states, an agency shall “2)   Provide records to requestors, as required; or 3)   Request that DOA coordinate the response to the records request. If an Agency receives a request to participate in a study or evaluation related to weatherization

(other than Division or WECC projects), the Agency shall notify the HE+ Help Desk and receive  approval from the Division prior to agreeing to participate.”

After its first request for agency weatherization records was denied, the Ladysmith News made a second request for the same documents, citing the weatherization program manual requirements on open records.

Diane M. Welsh, an attorney with the Madison law firm, Pines Bach, which represents Indianhead, responded to the follow-up request, stating it would be forwarded to the Department of Administration, Office of Legal Counsel asking they respond to the newspaper’s request.

“You are correct that contracted agencies may have some obligations under Wisconsin’s public records law,” Welsh said in an email. “However, the primary responsibility lies with the state agencies. Therefore, Indianhead will work with DOA, so that DOA can coordinate the response.”

“Because this matter is not yet fully resolved, I cannot say what information may or may not be publicly available at this time. I would further expect that DOA will withhold or redact proprietary or confidential information,” Welsh said.

Dispute on the contract

There are three representatives from Rusk County on the board, including Willingham as the county representative, Eldon Skogen as the community representative and Christine Newkirk as the low-income representative.

Willingham declined to clarify the issues with the Indianhead weatherization program.

“For lack of a better comment, we are negotiating right now some resolution to some issues that came up some time back,” Willingham said. “They are not anything that I would be free to share at this point.”

Willingham said Shearer shared the newspaper’s public records request with the Indianhead board, “and she followed their advice.”

“I really don’t have a detailed understanding of the issues, but it was a dispute on the contract,” Willingham said.

Willingham said one could make an assumption something substantial happened based on the agency losing the contract with the state and Indianhead laying off its weatherization department workforce.

“People are going to make whatever assumption they have. The services are still being provided by other entities,” Willingham said.

No services denied

Willingham believes the issues did not prevent any weatherization applicants from receiving assistance.

“Not that I know of,” he said. “At least not in the immediate area. I haven’t heard that anyone was left out in the service areas.”

Willingham said the allegations are not based on misuse of funds.  

“No. I am certainly unaware of any misuse of funds,” he said,

State officials have not given Indianhead officials a reason for terminating the weatherization contract, according to Willingham.

“It was a unilateral decision on the state and, frankly, they didn’t tell us,” he said.

There are currently no criminal charges or civil lawsuits involving Indianhead Community Action Agency, according to Wisconsin court records.

“I am not aware of any,” Willingham said.