A U.S. Department of Energy grant aimed at helping residents save money on energy costs instead has turned into a red flag magnet, largely through its handling by Wood County Commission President Wayne Dunn.
Through Dunn's urging, the county commission applied, and this past January was approved, for two $10,000 U.S. Department of Energy SMART Energy Solutions Program grants. The funding, which required a $2,000 local match for each grant, was used to pay inspectors to conduct energy assessments and provide education for middle-income homeowners to make their homes more energy-efficient.
The county partnered with students at West Virginia University at Parkersburg, who would act as the inspectors and conduct the audits.
However, for some reason, Dunn decided to administer the program himself, bypassing longtime Wood County grants coordinator Toni Tiano, who had helped Dunn write the grant and who normally oversees how the grant programs are operated after funding is received.
When questions were raised in August about how Dunn was operating the program, Wood County Prosecutor Jason Wharton requested the commissioners conduct a review. At that time, the commissioners voted to continue with the program, but asked Dunn to supply records concerning the program and how it was being administered.
During the subsequent review, commissioners Steve Gainer and Blair Couch were - to put it mildly - surprised to learn some of the things Dunn had done without anyone else's knowledge or approval. He had set up a checking account in the county commission's name and apparently wrote checks without the others' knowledge. He hired the students to conduct the audits and also hired the office manager at his dental practice to run the program. Wharton raised concerns about these hirings because of several liability issues the county could potentially face.
These and other questionable decisions and a casual approach to record-keeping caused the commission this past week by a 2-1 vote to walk away from the grant and return the federal money, of which none had been spent. The commission also decided to use $48,000 left over from a previous program to pay any outstanding bills from this one.
No one believes Dunn had any improper intentions with his administration of this project. Most likely his desire to control the program and not hand over administration of it to Tiano, as is the usual procedure, had more to do with his passion for energy issues than any distrust of Tiano's ability. However, the proper procedure would have been for Dunn to allow Tiano to do the job she has been doing. If this protocol had been followed in the first place, these questions could have been avoided.
Grants provide essential money for many worthwhile projects that otherwise would not not be funded. The amount of federal money for grants has been shrinking every year.
Dunn's heart may be in the right place, but, at least in this instance, his mind wasn't.