Typically when the government and business get together, it’s the consumer who ends up paying. So when Washington, D.C.’s Department of the Environment (DDOE) teamed up with Patuxent Environmental Group (PEG) and other contractors to provide “free” energy audits, of course it didn’t end well for the consumer. But most residents didn’t realize that PEG would place liens on their houses for not paying for the audit.

Let’s start from the beginning. For the past two years, the D.C. government has been contracting out to inspectors to investigate where homeowners could improve the energy efficiency of their homes. Then the program started to run into problems.

According to one resident who tried to take advantage of the program, PEG completed the audit but sent no report detailing what the energy improvements should be:

Weeks went by, no report, so I called PEG and was told that they weren’t authorized to issue reports to homeowners and I should call the DDOE to inquire. That office said that PEG’s reports initially were too complicated and they were asked to simplify them and then they were too generic and so reports were being redrafted yet again and I’d get mine soon. Weeks later, no report so I called again. Again I was told to call the city government—frankly, I can’t remember the details except that each party was blaming the other for me not getting my report—and frankly I gave up the idea of ever getting one.

If that had been the case, the story may have ended there. Some taxpayer money wasted on a D.C. government program, but what’s new? In the beginning of August, some homeowners received this letter from PEG:

Unfortunately, we are unable to supply you with that report because the DDOE has failed to make payment for the inspection. After repeated efforts, letters, emails and meetings the DDOE has made no effort to resolve the issue. It is with great regret, that we are informing you that we are placing a lien on your property. As a matter of protocol, a contractor’s last effort to collect payment for service not paid is placing the lien.

The letter astonished and frightened residents for obvious reasons, but DDOE sent a letter to the same residents a few days later, saying, “PEG has no legal basis for placing a lien on your property.” PEG said that placing a lien was a “reservation of rights” but will not proceed with the filing of any liens. The dispute has devolved to a blame game between DDOE and PEG, with the government saying they told PEG to stop and PEG claiming that’s not the case. Even so, the DDOE promised residents a new energy audit “at no cost” to the residents.

Of course, the program does have a cost, but it will be borne by D.C. taxpayers. More often than not, the consumers that have the finances to make improvements on their homes will also have the finances to cover an energy audit. If consumers want to save money by improving the energy efficiency of their home, they should do so on their own rather than relying on taxpayers to foot a portion of the bill.