November 12, 2010

Federal Heating Aid to NH Cut in Half

Jeanine Moore of Fred Fuller Oil Company makes a delivery earlier this week in Derry. 
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY -- Three weeks and counting – that’s how long before the winter heating season officially begins here and, unless something changes, the annual federal funding stream that warms New Hampshire’s neediest households will only be half of what it was last year.
According to Joanne Morin, direc
tor of the state Office of Energy Planning, the proposed federal budget that funds New Hampshire’s share of the Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Block Grant was slashed this year by nearly $2 billion, down from $5.1 billion for the previous winter. 
“What that means for New Hampshire is that fewer people will be getting help,” said Morin. “We’re looking at getting about $19.7 million for the program, which will provide an average of $703 to about 25,000 households.” That’s compared with last year when the state received $40.8 million, providing an average of $925 to about 47,000 households. 
Morin explained that LI-HEAP helps families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that would mean an annual income of less than $44,100. 
There are an estimated 188,000 New Hampshire homes that fall into that income category. 
As of Nov. 4 there were 14,419 families signed up to receive fuel assistance, Morin said. “We should reach the 25,000 household limit by December 1, which means anyone applying for assistance after that would have to go on a waiting list.” 
In August, Gov. Lynch, as part of the Coalition of Northeastern Governors petitioned President Obama and Congress to release $100 million in LIHEAP reserve funding for the region, a common practice in the funding cycle, said Morin. 
“By the time we get close to December and the heating season, the states get together and say, ‘Hey, we’ll have to shut down programs without this money.’ We’re still hopeful that, as the individual states document what this funding means under these economic times, the additional monies would be allocated to this program,” Morin said. 
Besides being able to provide less fuel to fewer families, without a financial boost the OEP’s weatherization program will also be underfunded. 
“A lot of stimulus dollars were placed into the weatherization program, so last year we were able to increase the number of homes we weatherized from 300 to 1,000. But doing 1,000 homes a year is not the same as doing 25,000 – what I’m saying is ultimately, if you could insulate all these homes you don’t have to give them as much fuel because they’re more efficient, but it takes a lot of money to do air sealing and insulation,” Morin said. 
With home heating oil up by about 30 cents per gallon over this time last winter, the reduced federal funding will have a trickle-down effect on town budgets, as well. 
In Derry, for example, expenditures for general assistance to families struggling with rent, electric and heating bills increased by 20 percent in 2010 compared to 2009 due to more people being out of work and running out of unemployment benefits, according to Human Services Administrator Jill McLaughlin. 
However, town money spent on fuel assistance was actually 51 percent less in 2010 than in 2009 as a direct result of the increased money in the state’s Fuel Assistance Program last year. With less money available this year, it’s likely more residents will seek assistance from the town. 
But that is a very tight budget, said McLaughlin. And while there are other resources available, all are limited, and some are already depleted. 
For one, Citizens Energy Corporation, a regional non-profit organization that provides a one-time delivery of up to 100 gallons of heating oil, is no longer taking applications for this winter. 
The best alternative for residents who face financial difficulties staying warm, paying utilities or any other financial hardships is to dial 211 on their telephones, said Heather Aicholtz, director of 211 New Hampshire, a statewide referral service. 
Calls for heating fuel assistance are consistently among the Top 10 requests made to the service. 
The program is a relatively new joint effort of United Way and Public Service of New Hampshire. 
“It’s a free phone call from anywhere in New Hampshire, and you will reach a specialist who can help you find help for whatever need you have, or whatever you’re going through,” Aicholtz said. 
Of the 34,692 calls made since January to the help line, 1,233 were specifically for fuel assistance. Given the reduced state and federal funding available, she expects call volume will be up on all fronts. 
“It’s catching on. Word is getting out that the service is here. We’re getting calls from human service providers, teachers on behalf of families, doctors for patients, grandmothers for their grandkids,” said Aicholtz. 

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