A federally funded energy education program that’s being phased out amid controversy spent nearly half of its money on salaries, records show.

The Maine Green Energy Alliance used $163,220 to support nine full-time and four part-time employees, as well as an executive director with an annual salary of $80,000.

About half of the staff served as organizers and outreach workers to encourage residents in eight targeted communities to weatherize their homes. Others offered telephone support for residents who were trying to finance and carry out home energy audits or insulation jobs.

Altogether, the alliance spent $355,836 from August through the end of 2010 to schedule 200 energy audits and help complete 50 home retrofits. Facing mounting criticism for the slow progress, the group’s board of directors voted last week to finish ongoing work and close by early March.

The alliance had a one-year budget of $1.1 million from the federal Department of Energy. It will turn over its balance — projected to be at least $500,000 after January’s expenses are tallied — to Efficiency Maine Trust, a quasi-state agency that oversees the state’s weatherization efforts. The alliance also will forfeit an additional $2 million that could have been made available over the next two years.

The alliance’s money will fortify a popular and successful program that gives homeowners rebates to offset the cost of insulating their homes. The program has paid out $5.5 million to weatherize 1,700 homes, but the rebate money is nearly exhausted.

As the alliance winds down, the group’s executive director and officials with Efficiency Maine Trust are defending what it set out to do.

The alliance was just ramping up, they say, for what was expected to be a long-term education effort to boost the number of weatherized homes in Maine. When it became clear that the effort was slower and more labor-intensive than planned, officials said they acted responsibly to end the program and redirect money to the rebates for homeowners.

“This was intended to be a three-year program,” said Seth Murray, the alliance’s executive director. “We were trying to learn what was effective.”

The Maine Green Energy Alliance operated under a contract with Efficiency Maine Trust. The trust, created by the Legislature, is overseen by an independent board. That arrangement will prompt lawmakers to examine the trust’s operations and the spending record of the alliance, said Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, who co-chairs the committee that handles energy issues.

The role of the alliance came under scrutiny early this week, after an article was published by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. Among other things, it called into question the group’s origins and the influence of the Democratic administration of former Gov. John Baldacci.

Fitts said he’s less interested in rehashing the politics and history than understanding how the money was spent. A larger issue, he said, is whether Maine lawmakers should have more scrutiny over the trust, which generally is funded through federal grants and utility surcharges and is operating under a three-year plan approved by the Legislature.

“My specific concern is how free people are with federal money, and how easy it is for that money to be lost in the shuffle,” Fitts said.

This hard winter and rising petroleum prices are underscoring Maine’s vulnerability to high energy costs. Most of the state’s homes are poorly insulated, and seven out of 10 heat with oil.

The nonprofit Maine Green Energy Alliance was set up as a new approach to tackling the problem. The idea was to partner with municipal leaders, civic groups and concerned citizens to upgrade energy efficiency, town by town.

The alliance began work in August. It focused on communities that had adopted a new funding mechanism for energy improvements, Property Assessed Clean Energy, in which loans are paid back through property taxes. The first six communities to sign on are Old Town, Hampden, Yarmouth, Scarborough, Cumberland and Belfast. Topsham and Buckfield are set to consider PACE at town meetings.

To drum up interest, alliance workers held community meetings in town halls and libraries. They canvassed door-to-door and did surveys. They helped organize “warm neighbor parties,” at which residents who had their homes insulated could invite family members and friends to see the work and learn about the benefits.

The outreach workers earned $30,000 to $40,000 a year, plus benefits. Homeowner coaches, who worked the phones, were paid $15 an hour.

Aside from salaries, the alliance spent $81,688 on outreach expenses, such as mailers, advertising and travel, according to a summary of invoices provided by Murray, the executive director. It spent $72,768 on consulting, accounting and legal expenses.

Most of the $47,635 in legal expenses went to the Hallowell law firm of Tom Federle, a former legal counsel for Baldacci who founded the alliance and orchestrated PACE’s enabling legislation. The rest of the money, $35,340, went for office expenses.

The alliance had an eight-month plan to see which community efforts were successful in encouraging residents to retrofit their homes. The most effective formulas were to be rolled out in dozens of towns.

But as the alliance worked to gain momentum, the homeowner rebate program run by Efficiency Maine Trust was experiencing intense demand and running out of money. The money earmarked for the alliance already had caused resentment among the staff of Efficiency Maine Trust. Under the contract, the trust could have given the alliance another $2 million to operate for two more years.

But it had become clear that the alliance wasn’t making sufficient progress to justify that support, said Michael Stoddard, the trust’s executive director. It also was apparent that his board would have to announce, after a meeting that had been set for Wednesday, that the rebate money was almost gone. That put pressure on the alliance to pull the plug at its own board meeting last week.

Despite the internal tension, Stoddard said he feels the alliance acted responsibly. Its mission was to educate people about the benefits of insulating their homes, after the federally funded rebate money is gone.

The experience is raising questions about whether Mainers really need government-funded organizers to encourage them to weatherize their homes. “At this stage, clearly, there are enough people who don’t,” Stoddard said.

Efficiency Maine Trust was envisioned to help maintain a consistent effort to cut the state’s dependence on oil over time. But the trust was formed and funded under a Democratic-controlled administration and Legislature. Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature’s new Republican majority aren’t expected to be as supportive of the agency, and the Maine Green Energy Alliance episode won’t help.

Adam Lee, the businessman who chairs Efficiency Maine Trust’s board, said he expects that he and Stoddard will be called before Fitts and the Legislature’s energy committee for an explanation. But Lee insisted that a close examination of events will show the agency’s intentions were good and its actions were proper.

“I would not blame them for asking questions, but this is an example of people trying to do the right thing,” Lee said. “We tried it for five months, then we made the right decisions.”

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

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