State officials prepare for another cut in LIHEAP funding

An oil-fired home heating furnace. Creative Commons photo

An oil-fired home heating furnace. Creative Commons photo

How much money Congress will appropriate to help low-income Vermonters heat their homes is up in the air. But as winter approaches, state officials are forced to make plans now.

When members of the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee asked Richard Moffi, chief of the state’s Fuel Assistance Office, if they would need to increase the $6 million lawmakers set aside for its portion of this season’s Low-Income Heating Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which benefits approximately 45,000 Vermonters each winter, he could not answer.

Moffi doesn’t know how much Congress will provide. As of now, the fuel assistance office is basing its budget for FY 2014 on the lower amount that the U.S. House has proposed, which amounts to about $17 million for Vermont — compared to the more than $18 million that Vermont would receive from the U.S. Senate proposal. For the past three years, the House number has won out in Washington.

While the federal contribution is in limbo, the state’s share is known. The Legislature budgeted $6 million for LIHEAP this years, compared to $9.8 million last year.

The budget for Vermont LIHEAP is due Nov. 1, in order to have benefits paid to eligible Vermonters by mid-November. Last heating season, the Fuel Assistance Office did not receive the federal LIHEAP decision until April. The office ran the program in November anyway and plans to do the same this year if a decision in Washington drags on, Moffi said.

Either way, it is likely Vermonters will see a lower benefit average than in previous years.

The estimate for this year’s average LIHEAP benefit is $717 per household, nearly $200 less than the $898 the average low-income family received last year.

That decrease that will have a “huge impact,” on some of Vermont’s low-income families, Moffi said.

Suppliers pitch in

While funding is being cut on the federal and state level, the Vermont Public Service Board has ordered electricity and heating fuel providers to help out by offering discounts to low-income households.

Since July 1, Vermont Gas has offered a 20 percent discount on eligible customers’ bills though its Low-Income Assistance Program (LIAP). The program was created by a Dec. 2012 PSB order.

Families with incomes no greater than 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or who meet DCF’s income eligibility guidelines for LIHEAP assistance, are eligible for the program, according to the Fuel Assistance Office. Approximately 7,500 households in Chittenden and Franklin counties are eligible for the discount.

In order to finance the program, Vermont Gas increased overall rates by 1.2 percent, said Steve Wark, director of communications at Vermont Gas.
However, Vermont Gas just filed for a 5.86 percent rate decrease.

“We support low-income Vermonters and have provided assistance in the past through the Warmth program,” Wark said.

Warmth is an emergency situation program used when a household has exhausted its supply of fuel or faces disconnection of utility services. Contributions for the Warmth program comes from the company (not ratepayers) and customer donations, Wark said.

Green Mountain Power has been offering a similar discount program since Dec. 2012. The Green Mountain Energy Assistance Program gives eligible customers (up to 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines) a 25 percent discount on the first 600 kilowatt hours used, Moffi said.
The Fuel Assistance Office screens and verifies customers applying for the program, and as of Feb. 1 they had determined that 2,800 GMP customers were eligible for the program.

Vermont’s heating oil companies have offered discounts for lower income families for five years, an industry spokesman said.

“We’ve offered discounts since 2008 as opposed to the big utility companies, who just started because the Legislature ordered them to,” said Matt Cota, executive director of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association. He said the discount that oil and coal companies give is fundamentally different than the discount Vermont Gas has been “forced to offer.”

The discount varies from year to year, and is set by a contract with the Fuel Assistance Office. Last year, more than 90 percent of the companies Cota represents offered a discount of 10 cents per gallon to eligible customers.


Comments

  1. Randal Murray :

    How about we don’t give anything away. If we tapped into our natural resources we would have low cost energy and private company’s wouldn’t have to give anything away. The government would save tax dollars and it would put people back to work. This would work too wouldn’t it? The one down fall is, if you aren’t sending these people a check every month it is hard to secure their vote.

  2. Wayne Andrews :

    The govt should realize the difference between a hand up and a hand out.

  3. Dave Bellini :

    I’m surprised the State of Vermont is even participating in LIHEAP. Shouldn’t Vermont be giving poor people a free solar panel instead of fuel money? If absolutely necessary a small hand held windmill too. How can the carbon footprint people encourage the poor to burn fossil fuel? LIHEAP should only go towards an energy audit, small windmills and solar panels. Get with the program people…..

    • Kathy Nelson :

      Dave, what are you thinking here? A solar panel and a handheld pinwheel will not heat a home. You also forget the fact that solar and wind are intermittent and unreliable, both require a back-up and/or storage system, and both of these systems are expensive to install and maintain. Industrial wind is extremely destructive and a threat to human health.
      There always seem to be so many commenters ready and willing to slam the poor for being poor. Most of the time those comments are based on opinion and not fact. People are struggling all over this state and it is not because they don’t work, can’t work or don’t want to work. There are always a few who abuse the system for sure, but there are plenty who abuse the system to make themselves rich as well.

      • Dave Bellini :

        It’s sarcasm. The poor can’t afford to be politically correct or worry about their carbon footprint. Neither can average wage earners.

  4. Wayne Andrews :

    Good point Dave!!

  5. Gregory Lapworth :

    Please take note of this, anti pipeline people. The areas to be connected to the natural gas pipeline could save 51% on cost, that’s taxpayers paying for LIHEAP. Plus reduce their carbon footprint by 25%. But the anti’s aren’t capable of rational thought.
    We all must remember government gives us nothing; we give the government money to pay for such things as LIHEAP. Lets stop using the word government and instead use “taxpayers”. No more government grants but instead taxpayer grants. We might pay attention more on how our money is spent.

  6. rosemarie jackowski :

    Are some of the comments above serious, or are they intended as jokes. Many people who need help have worked hard all of their lives. If they had received a fair wage for all of those years, they would not need help now.

    Just for the record: There are many Vermonters who are now diagnosed with illnesses caused by living in homes without adequate heat. Question… does Vermont have the largest number of Raynoud Syndrome cases? Many of these could have been prevented with a little more heat in the homes.

    We must end the prejudice against all those at the bottom of the economic pile. I’ve heard officials say that the poor don’t need dental care. “Just give them a toothbrush”. Now, some will say, just give them a sweater instead of LIHEAP.

    A little compassion would go a long way.

    • Greg Lapworth :

      Raynaud disease is also caused by alcoholism, drugs and smoking. Please do not mislead people also spell it correctly.

      • Ken McPherson :

        Greg, I would love to get your sources on the causes of Raynaud Syndrome. My sources, including the Mayo Clinic (see http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/raynauds-disease/DS00433) suggest that the cause of most types of Raynaud syndrome remains unknown. Cold temps trigger the onset of symptoms and, in a small number of cases, may actually create the underlying problem. Why do so many people need to believe that the poor are poor because they are lazy and pursue evil activities. In reality, long term structural changes in the economy are leading to a dual economy where most of the gains go to the proverbial 1% and even more to the 0.01%. Last year, the bottom 99% of families with an average income of just over $44,000 saw their incomes rise by a whopping $450, or just over 1.0%. The top 1%, with average family income of about $1,250,000, saw their incomes rise by almost $210,000, almost 20%. And the top 0.01% of all families – with an average income of almost $31,000,000, saw their incomes increase by more than $7,500,000, or almost 33%. These numbers are not anomalies – rather they are the most recent evidence of an unsustainable long term trend in the American economy. Can we be surprised that more and more people are being left behind? I think not. Can we be appalled and dismayed that so many believe that their problems are the result of their own personal failures and therefore that they should be left to suffer cold and hunger. I hope that we can.

  7. Matt Fisken :

    My heart goes out to families who have difficulty affording to keep their homes warm, but it’s hard to blame Congress for scaling back this program. By taking away some of that assistance, maybe it will encourage more efficiency efforts. Is there any form of in-home check to make sure all that free money and energy isn’t just going “out the window”? What if those those same households put half of that $717 into weatherization projects?

    Give a man a fish…

  8. John Jacob :

    If only I could get a handout from this state, unfortunately I have a job and am not a single parent who should have made the wise decision not to have child number 2 & 3 when I couldn’t afford child 1.

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