Federal funding doubled to counter higher heating costs

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“It’s gonna be a cold one.” We hear it every year.

The difference this year, however, is that winter heating costs are predicted to be 20 percent higher than last year, said Bill Walsh, communications director for the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

“Everybody’s going to pay more to heat their homes this year,” he said.

Luckily, those having trouble keeping up on their energy payments have a couple places to turn for help.

Each year, the U.S. Department of Energy shells out billions of dollars for heating assistance through its Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
This year, Minnesota is getting almost double its usual share.

On average, the state receives between $75 million and $78 million, Walsh said. The federal allocation goes to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, which distributes it on a first-come, first-served basis. This year, he said, the state has already been appropriated $144.5 million.

“In the middle of the whole bailout discussion, I think Congress recognized the need and reacted to it,” Walsh said. In total, the federal government allocated about $5 billion to the program this year, as opposed to the usual $2.5 billion.

While the program is targeted toward seniors, disabled individuals and families with children, anyone who meets the requirements is welcome to participate, Walsh said.
To be eligible for energy assistance, applicants must make less than 50 percent of the state’s median income. For a family of four, Walsh said, that’s about $40,000 a year.
The federal funds are distributed throughout the state by 38 agencies.

Community Action of Minneapolis administers the funds within the city. Tony Spears, Community Action’s Director of Fiscal Services, said the current number of applicants — 5,500 — is 20 percent higher than at the same time last year.

Spears said this year’s larger energy assistance budget will ensure help for more people, adding that the agency’s personal goal is to serve 14,000 households in Minneapolis.
Walsh agreed, adding that last year, LIHEAP helped about 126,000 households in the state, and this year he expects it to help an additional 160,000 households.

Recently, LIHEAP has begun linking its computer system with that of the utility companies. This allows them to pay utility bills on the behalf of citizens.

“It saves us a lot of money, which allows us to put that money back with the families,” Walsh said, adding that the linked system eliminates the need to print and mail checks to utility companies.

Applications for LIHEAP can be found online at the Minnesota Department of Commerce website, www.commerce.state.mn.us, and at the Community Action of Minneapolis website. They must then be printed and mailed or brought directly to Community Action. Spears added that those interested may also apply directly at the Community Action of Minneapolis office, 2104 Park Ave.

Another service provided by LIHEAP is weatherization. Through this program, improvements are performed within houses to drastically reduce energy costs. This can include fixing or replacing furnaces or windows. Funding for weatherization has doubled this year as well, Walsh said, and averages to about $3,000–$4,000 per household. Income requirements for weatherization are the same as for energy assistance.

CenterPoint Energy customers have the opportunity to have their energy costs greatly reduced through the company’s Gas Affordability Plan. To qualify, customers must already be enrolled in LIHEAP. If they have past-due balances, CenterPoint’s installment plan will ensure that the company matches each monthly payment made by the customer.

Heatshare, a program sponsored by the Salvation Army, collects voluntary contributions from utility customers through their monthly utility bills and puts them toward other people’s bills. The donations, which can also be made online, are used for natural gas, fuel, oil propane, electricity and furnace repair.

A limited amount of LIHEAP money is allocated toward emergency energy assistance at a county level, Walsh said, but it is reserved only for extreme cases.

Spears said he thinks people are requesting energy assistance early this year because they are already approaching the winter season with higher energy bills than in previous years. In any case, he said he is happy they are applying sooner and hopes to get heat to all who need it.