Crisis fuel runs out on Friday; Shumlin says administration will find $900,000 for low-income heating program

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks at a press conference. Photo by Alicia Freese

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks at a press conference. Photo by Alicia Freese

Gov. Peter Shumlin announced today that the state’s crisis fuel fund needs an injection of $900,000 or it will run dry by Friday.

During a liquid-themed press conference, the governor began with a ceremonial tree-tapping exercise on the Statehouse lawn before announcing the unexpected shortage in the crisis fuel fund. Shumlin pledged that the fund will be shored up, despite the constricted budget, but said he didn’t know where the money will come from. “We’re figuring that out,” he said.

The current shortfall represents about a third of the amount originally deposited in the emergency fund — $2.8 million.

The crisis fuel fund, which supplements LIHEAP, the state’s low income heating fuel assistance program, has served 4,500 families so far this year; last year it served 7,200. It runs from the last Monday in November to the last Friday in April.

Shumlin said the shortage came as a surprise to his administration and, other than a period of frigid weather, they aren’t sure what to attribute it to.

The unexpected upsurge in demand, coupled with uncertainty about federal funding, is prompting the Shumlin administration to take a closer look at the program.

LIHEAP is currently funded by $8.8 million from the state and $17.7 million in federal funding. Federal funds have been dwindling since 2010 and will decline further if the sequestration occurs. A report from the U.S. House Democratic Appropriations Committee shows that total federal LIHEAP funding to states would decrease by $185 million or 5 percent. This comes on top of a 32 percent reduction that has taken place since 2010. In Vermont, there could be a $2 million drop in funding if the sequester goes through, according to Matt Cota, lobbyist for the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association.

“While we are running a great program, it could be more efficient. And clearly we are not going to get more federal dollars,” Shumlin said.

The Shumlin administration plans to revisit the eligibility guidelines for the program.

Dave Yacavone, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, which administers LIHEAP, said, “We’ll do a lot of that through rulemaking when we look at eligibility — trying to make sure we serve the most vulnerable of the vulnerable when we don’t have enough resources. That will be an open and transparent process.”

Currently 80 percent of households who receive fuel assistance include an elderly person, a disabled person, or a child under 6, according to Yacavone.

In order to be eligible for the LIHEAP, families must be at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level and to qualify for the crisis fund, they must be at or below 200 percent.

Shumlin says the state also hopes to save money in the future by negotiating better fuel purchasing deals, stepping up weatherization efforts, and more accurately calibrating how many gallons households need.

Alicia Freese

Comments

  1. Jim Barrett :

    You’ll notice that reports out of Montpelier are always great until the money is needed for more people on welfare, food stamps, child care, school lunches, homeless, fuel and the list is endless. Another odd part of this little article exclaims that no one knew there was a shortage and all I can say; it is yet another example the government doesn’t have a clue as to what is going on but is an expert on taxing us to death!

  2. Lee Stirling :

    How many low-income Vermonters actually own their own home or condo and can afford to pay the property taxes and insurance that goes along with that? What I’m getting at here is that given the large financial barriers to home ownership, it’s unlikely that many of those receiving this heating assistance actually own their own home. They’re almost certainly renting a house, condo, or apartment from a landlord. Weatherization funding to increase thermal efficiency of these rental units is a great idea and one that would stand to lower heating costs. But who is really going to benefit here? Any weatherization that makes a rental property more efficient becomes a selling point that can justify bumping-up the rent. So then what??? Maybe these low-income Vermonters pay less to heat the place, but their rent is raised and they’re not actually saving any money. The only ones who stand to benefit from this State-funded setup are the landlords who own these rental properties.

    • Cheryl Pariseau :

      Lee: I wish I could say that you are right, but I cannot. Some who have section 8 rental voucher are allowed to convert them to home ownership vouchers. When converted this allows the voucher to be used for assistance in paying mortgage, taxes, and insurance. http://www.vsha.org/homeown.htm

      • Lee Stirling :

        I don’t recall saying that 100% of those receiving LIHEAP assistance live in rented units. Certainly there are some LIHEAP recipients who own their own home, for example some elderly individuals on fixed incomes may have owned their home for decades. From the link you sent me, it’s unclear though how easily one could make headway out of the conversion from Section 8 rental to Section 8 homeowner voucher. What bank will finance the mortgage of a condo or home for these individuals if they have Section 8 assistance? What sales prices are we talking about? What interest rates could they conceivably qualify for? What collateral or down-payment on the part of the person looking to buy (typically 10% of the purchase price for a private sale) is on the table here? My assertion is merely that most low-income individuals would be unlikely to own their own home and would be receiving LIHEAP to heat a rental unit in which they are tenants. My assertion is that weatherization funds for energy efficiency improvements for the units in which low-income people live will also benefit the landlord/homeowner and probably to a greater extent than the low-income recipient in the long run who may be faced with paying higher rent to live in the newly “weatherized” unit. Life for low-income Vermonters is by no means easy or fair.

  3. sandra bettis :

    i know of a case where they are going thru an enormous amount of fuel for 2 reasons – one is that the house is not insulated and the other is that they are not conserving – i guess you are more apt to conserve if you are paying the bill. anyway, if this is an example, then i can see why the fund would run out of money very quickly.

  4. rosemarie jackowski :

    The crisis fuel assistance program, as it now exists, needs to be reformed. Many who should be eligible are not. Many Vermonters are living in 55 degree homes – with just enough heat to keep pipes from freezing.

    BROC, according to their website, disqualifies those who pay their bills by check. Also those who have no access to transportation to get to the office are disqualified. From the BROC website: “…requires receipts for expenses paid in the last 30 days…”. (Cancelled checks are not always available within the 30 day deadline.)

    Are ‘disqualifying’ requirements purposely in effect to discourage use of the program? Are they just an oversight from out-of-touch bureaucrats? An unintendeded consequence? A mean-spirited attitude toward the poor?

    In the meantime – while many worry about ‘sugary drinks’ they ignore the health problems caused by living in cold houses.

    • Jason Farrell :

      Here’s the entire quote from the BROC “Crisis Fuel & Utility” page. It appears that Ms. Jackowski left out part of the quote in her post above.

      “Eligibility for assistance considers all income in the household and resources and requires receipts for expenses paid in the last 30 days.”

      http://www.broc.org/energycrisisfuel.php

      Nothing I’ve read at the BROC site supports the assertion that, “BROC, according to their website, disqualifies those who pay their bills by check.”

      In fact, it appears to be precisely the opposite. Asking for RECEIPTS for expenses (nowhere is it stated that cancelled checks are necessary) is an equitable way of assessing (or considering) the overall income and resources of a household. Or, put more simply, “their ability to pay”. Showing these expenses through receipt has the potential to decrease the applicant’s overall household income while increasing the likelihood of qualification for the benefit for those whose total household incomes place them in the margins of qualifying for the benefit.

      Is the suggestion that this assessment process implies a ‘disqualifying’ requirement which doesn’t exist purposely being used to confuse people about this program? Was it just an oversight from out-of-touch person who chronically complains about everything that government does? Was there another intended consequence, or was this simply a demonstration of one’s mean-spirited attitude toward those who seek to serve the poor?

      • rosemarie jackowski :

        Jason…If bills are paid by a check that is mailed, it is often impossible to get a receipt within the 30 day requirement. Eventually, a cancelled check or copy of one is avalable – but not within the 30 days. This is a special hardship for the disabled and those without transportation. Some folks are lucky to get to the post office once a week, and some never get to the bank.

        • Jason Farrell :

          Rosemarie…. What’s would your solution be? Not to count these expenditures against an applicant’s household income? Not counting these expenses, no matter what method of payment is used, would lead to more people being disqualified from access to this needed subsidy. You do understand that, right? Your assertions that disqualification is a purposeful effect of the requirement is laughable as the purpose of this component of the process facilitates MORE households becoming qualified than if these receipts weren’t considered as part of a household’s ability to pay.

          As one who has benefitted from public assistance with my children’s healthcare costs, I understand that there are challenges in any process of determining and confirming the eligibility of participants. I also understand that dealing with these sometimes cumbersome application/renewal processes is part of the cost I pay to participate in a subsidy program. In that way, these processes give me confidence that the system is working in the most efficient way to ensure that those of us who do receive these subsidies have a stake in periodically confirming that we’re still qualified to benefit.

          As their website clearly shows, the BROC makes no differentiation with regard to how one demonstrates a RECIEPT (not a cancelled check as you continue to suggest) for their monthly expenses. They only require that applicants provide it. If this requirement presents a challenge for a subset of applicants, it’s certainly not an insurmountable challenge to overcome. Finally, I’d suggest that an investment on your part in assisting those applicants who are challenged by the process of applying or renewing would be much more fruitful than disparaging those who have created and/or are monitoring the process for consideration. After all, I believe that their goal is to ensure that there is a fair and equitable process that is accessible to all who qualify. Doubting that on the grounds that you’ve claimed is irresponsible and unproductive.

        • Jason Farrell :

          What would your solution be? Not to count these expenditures against an applicant’s household income? Not counting these expenses, no matter what method of payment is used, would lead to more people being disqualified from access to this needed subsidy. You do understand that, right? Your assertions that this is a purposeful effect of the requirement is laughable. The purpose of this component of the process is to assist MORE households to qualify than were these receipts not considered as part of a households ability to pay.

          As one who has benefitted from public assistance with my children’s healthcare costs, I understand that there are challenges in any process of determining and confirming the eligibility of participants. I also understand that dealing with these sometimes cumbersome application/renewal processes are part of the cost I pay to participate in subsidy programs. In that way, these processes give me confidence that the system is working in the most efficient way to ensure that those who do receive these subsidies have a stake in periodically confirming that we’re still qualified to benefit.

          The BROC makes no differentiation with regard to how one demonstrates a RECIEPT (not a cancelled check as you continue to suggest) for their monthly expenses. They only require that applicants provide it. If this requirement presents a challenge for a subset of applicants, it’s certainly not an insurmountable challenge to overcome. Finally, I’d suggest that an investment on your part in assisting those applicants who are challenged by the process of applying would be much more fruitful than disparaging those who have created and are monitoring the process for consideration. After all, I believe that their goal is to ensure that there is a fair and equitable process that is accessible to all who qualify, to doubt that on the grounds that you’ve claimed is irresponsible and unproductive.

          • rosemarie jackowski :

            Jason…If an applicant for Crisis Fuel Assistance pays a bill by putting a check in the mail, no receipt is issued at that time. Eventually a cancelled check will exist. The problem is that in a crisis BROC will not authorize fuel without a written receipt. It usually takes weeks for a receipt or proof of cancelled check to be available… especially if the bill paid was mailed accross the country. Therefore the system must be changed so that those who need the fuel can get it.

            The solution is easy – instead of 30 days, accept ‘receipts’ from 60 days in the past. Another solution would be to change the guidelines and base the assistance on the income of the applicant.

            Here’s a radical idea…accept the fact that many of those in need of help are honest. Not all poor people are liars, or lazy, or drug users. Maybe in a crisis, either understand that, or else admit that many will be denied because of a paperwork glitch. There are many ways this glitch could be fixed, if someone really wanted to fix it.

            How about those who cannot get to the office? Is help denied those who need it most – the disabled and those with no access to transportation.

            If you knew the work I do, you would understand that I am on the side of the disenfranchised. The ‘system’ and the ‘paper churners’ can take care of themselves.

  5. rosemarie jackowski :

    Would it help if there was a greater understanding of poverty in Vermont? The poor and just like you and me – just with less money.
    http://mwcnews.net/focus/politics/17768-poverty.html

  6. rosemarie jackowski :

    Correction

    Would it help if there was a greater understanding of poverty in Vermont? The poor are just like you and me – just with less money.

    http://mwcnews.net/focus/politics/17768-poverty.html

  7. Josh Fitzhugh :

    The saga of LIHEAP and the search for additional fuel assistance funds is a Vermonot evergreen, i.e., an issue that develops and appears every winter in Vermont. It never seems to get better, and with fuel oil prices likely to increase and federal dollars likely to decrease, the prospect for change is dim. So what can be done?

    I think a thorough study of the problem would help, asking such questions as:

    * Should weatherization be mandatory to receive funds?
    * Are the eligibility criteria appropriate?
    * Should eligible recipients be forced to move to smaller, less fuel-costly spaces? Do those exist or do they need to be built?
    * Who really benefits from the fuel assistance – tenants, landlords, or fuel dealers?
    * Are there alternative fuel sources?
    * How many of the receipients are the same year after year?
    * Is the fuel assistance calculated per person or per living quarter?
    * Why is the government surprized by the shortfall?

    In life we all adjust to problems outside our control. Most of us downsize when housing becomes too expensive. When necessary we ask family, friends, neighbors, social service agencies or governments (in that order, in my opinion)to help us through such transitions. But I think we all realise it is or must be a transition and paying for or maintaining the status quo cannot be the answer.

  8. David Bresett :

    $900,000 shortage that Shumlin didn’t realize. If he was in the state doing his job, instead of traveling around the world with one of his many girlfriends, maybe he wouldn’t be so clueless. How did this blind man get voted into office here in Vermont. He’s about as useless as they come. Sadly with this guys eye on the big prize, the senate, he could care less about Vermont and it’s inhabitants. Vote this guy out and let’s find a statesman that cares about this Vermont.

  9. Suzan Condon :

    So, I work as an Options Counselor for a Council on Aging in Vt.
    I saw three elders yesterday and I was cold in their homes, every one. Yes they own their homes, they are the old farms that have kept Vermont as it is, alive and beautiful for the next generations. They are the ones who worked those fields and raised their children who often have left Vermont for their own reasons, often times the lack of good paying jobs.
    Now our elders are alone in their homes, and struggling to make ends meet. None of the ones I saw on just this one day, were beggars, wanted to have to apply, or wanted anyone to know that they had to, they are embarassed and humbled by the benefits that allow them to live in poverty in their home.
    Moving all of our elders to senior housing is not the answer, most of the elders in senior housing get a $5.00 fuel benefit only, because of the rent they pay which includes heat, this is not breaking the system.
    We do not have enough apartments if they all did move, anyways, and we can barely get homeless people into housing within a 6 month window, homeless and on the street or under a bridge does not get you into housing any faster, you just get onto the wait list and wait.
    The Govenor has to know that this crisis was looming, it has been this way every year, and we hear from the fuel cheif often about the lack of funds and the program running out of funds. So, for the three I saw this week on one day who kept heat at 60 or 55, one had cut her insullin down to save on those cost, and she also was only eating one meal a day a pb and jelly sandwich, and an ensure beverage.
    One has wood back up and fell into the woodpile hurting her hand, so we are working on getting someone to bring her wood in for her, and do you know how hard it is to get volunteers to help their elderly neighbors? We have Neighbor to Neighbor volunteers, but they are limited by regulations as to what they can and cannot do.
    So, it is not the elderly poor who qualify for this benefit that need to be slapped or put down for their need.
    I do think that the department needs to look at younger couples who do not work. Some of our younger males seem to live off their women on benefits, floating in and out of their lives, and not paying anything into our systems. It is not the working poor, I refer to who do not have enough income to sustain their families, they are trying and working, and doing their best. it is the floaters, the drug users, the guys who couch surf, often women to women, which ever place is less stressful for them, and do not pay their share, but enjoy the heat we are all paying for. I realize that some do not claim where they live, or income they might have, because they owe back child support and if they did have earnings they would be garished to help off set the cost of caring for their children. So they don’t work, they hang out, and are often in trouble. This is an area we need to improve on, and change. Require them to work, why do we pay state workers to clean up the trash on the side of the highway, when we have many people who could do that who are doing nothing.
    If it is one thing that I know in my work, we cannot blame or put down the elders in our state, they are not the ones “draining” the system. Would you throw your grandmother out of her home so that her $800. benefit could be saved. As we all know the fuel benefit that people receive does not pay the whole bill for the year with the cost of fuel. So, they apply for crisis when that is gone, and this year most of my elderly clients did not apply for crisis, they just turned down the heat and are suffering it out until warm spring days come, and they can shut it off completely. I was cold in three home on one day, all clients were over 80 years old, this is March, our fuel asssitance season needs to include this last month of need. If it were adequately covered,to begin with, we would not be in a crisis every single year.
    Look at our younger folks, ask them how they can change? Insist that they do something to help out, stack wood for someone who needs it, rather than sit on the couch with their cell phones, and TV’s so big and costly none of the elders I serve have them?? Younger folks often know the ropes and use the system so they can hang back, and complain, but are not forced to do anything to change their use, or abuse of the system.

    • rosemarie jackowski :

      Susan…I just got home from Price Chopper. While there I met several older women friends who live in Bennington. One is in her 80s. We talked about how it feels to be old in Vermont. Yes, shoveling snow with a sprained wrist, living in 55 degree homes, no help in case of an emergency, almost no transportation out of town, isolation, no money for eyeglasses, of course no dental care…

      We also talked about trying to find a job at the aqe of 80, with medical problems, and no transportation. The bottiom line is: don’t get old in Vermont, unless you have a lot of money and a support system.

      • Josh Fitzhugh :

        As Susan Condon expresses so eloquently with regard to the elderly, this is a difficult problem and we must be sensitive to the contributions of the elderly who have worked so hard to maintain our farms and landscape. But at the end of the day, if they cannot afford to live where they are living, I think they have to move or find solutions other than permanent tax subsidies.

        I wonder if Susan has heard of Home Share. This is a very successful program active in Central Vermont(and Burlington too I believe) which partners up people like the three elderly women Susan describes with younger people who are looking for housing and can help maintain the “family homestead.” By matching the people and overseeing the relationship, Home Share can avoid some of the abuses that are known to occur in these types of relationships. It does seem to me a good non-governmental avenue to explore.

        • rosemarie jackowski :

          Josh…I respect your view, but it seems you are blaming the victims here. The elderly continue to pay taxes. Many continue to work, as volunteers, without pay. They are NOT free-loaders. Basically, all they want is a minimum level of necessities so that they can survive.

          There are many reasons why Home Share will not work all the time. For those where it works, that is great, but it should not be imposed on anyone.

          By your reasoning, a person who cannot afford housing should be satisfied to live under a bridge.

  10. Franklin Lambert :

    Many insightful comments on this article, and several solutions to this manmade problem.

    There are certain things in a civil society which should be part of the “commons”, for the good of the community, and not be privatized, such as water, gas, electricity and heating fuel. These commodities should be paid for with tax revenue, which is another story in itself.

    It’s sad and appalling to read about so many of our elders having to live with 55 degree heat in their homes for whatever reasons. Is this the way we take care of our elderly, the disabled, our children, the unemployed? By red-tapping them with obstacles for seeking aid of one kind or another? And in this case, it would be heating fuel.

    We have become a callous and selfish nation which has guzzled the Kool-Aid concoction of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, and are seeing the results of this way of life.

    U.S. Imperial forces use an incredible amount of natural resources for maintaining an unsustainable empire abroad, and our fellow citizens mentioned by you all are having to pay for it in the long run through no fault or wrongdoing of their own.

    Let’s go back to the Eisenhower tax rates, or something close to it, and not have to beg the super-rich and the mega-corporations to pay a little more, as our sheepish politicians now do.

    There are so many ways to conserve energy use, but the political establishment has failed miserably in instituting them. Business as usual doesn’t work too well, does it?

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