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.