Stimulus funds squandered in Dallas, critics say

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by JASON WHITELY

Bio | Email | Follow: @jasonwhitely

WFAA

NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

DALLAS — The City of Dallas is overpaying for items by up to 400 percent in one of its stimulus programs, according to a review of documents by News 8.

City staff approved invoices from contractors for $8 flourescent light bulbs and a $1,500 water heater — prices substantially higher than retail costs — for its Weatherization Assistance Program, which is funded by federal stimulus money.

The program is available to low-income families who need home repairs and energy efficiency improvements.

Maurine Dixon, 87 and her daughter, Jacqueline, got a number of jobs completed at their South Dallas residence.

"We had the regular round light bulbs — the big ones — and they replaced it with these," Jacqueline, 46, said, showing the new compact flourescent bulbs around a bathroom vanity.

Excluding labor, Dallas paid $8.10 for each EcoSmart 14 watt bulb.

Home Depot sells a four-pack of the exact same brand and model for $5.85 — less than $1.50 each.

The Dixons got a Smart Thermostat, as well.

Invoices show — without installation — the city paid $100 for the device. News 8 shopped for the same model number and found it online for $23.

Taxpayers got one for the cost of four.

"We didn't get no windows — no windows at all," Jacqueline said, showing several missing panes from bedroom windows.

Contractors billed the city for replacing four and collected $75 in stimulus funds for doing so.

But Dixon said it never happened.

News 8 examined dozens of invoices from a half-dozen contractors. The city lets contractors mark up prices 20 percent from their costs.

But documents reveal taxpayers are footing exorbitant costs for materials alone.

"The work? They did a good job and the workers were very respectful," said homeowner Jean Bissessar. Stimulus funds paid for a new water heater in her kitchen.

Invoices showed the city paid for a 40-gallon unit at a cost of $1,500.

But News 8 discovered it's not a 40-gallon tank after all, but rather the smaller 29-gallon one which sells online for as low as $381.

The city overpaid by $1,100.

Another contractor at another house charged Dallas $1,000 for a GE refrigerator. But on GE's Web site, similar models list for $609.

One homeowner got a thermostat made by White and Rodgers. The contractor billed $120, but it's for sale online at $33.

"Maybe it's the contractors who are going out and not doing the job, but it's the city that's paying them," said taxpayer watchdog Allen Gwinn. "How many times would you just let somebody come into your home and do work that you contracted for, not check on it? And just write them a blank check?"

The city said the higher prices factor in things like overhead, transportation and disposal fees.

But the city said it did not verify what something really costs;  it simply compared prices to what other contractors were bidding.

"The City of Dallas has verified that all invoices have been billed and paid in accordance with accepted proposals," the city said in a statement. "With the identification of these particular cases, additional inspections will be scheduled and appropriate action taken for any discrepancies found."

The city disputes what News 8 found at the Dixon's house. Staffers said contractors did replace four window panes in June, though four were missing when we visited.

But the city staff conceded it did not double-check contractors on those thermostats that were marked up 400 percent. That's one item contractors have to prove what they paid.

The city vows to dig deeper.

Critics say it should start with establishing what items really cost.

E-mail jwhitely@wfaa.com

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