On Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Peter Shumlin called for the allocation of $8.8 million in state funds for low-income heating assistance in current fiscal year (FY) 2013.
This funding level would represent an increase of 44 percent from the $6.1 million paid out to the state’s fuel assistance program in FY 2012. That is the amount lawmakers say is necessary to keep up with the program’s growing demand, while also holding the average household benefit for five months at $900.
“We’re a state where neighbors take care of neighbors and neighbors take care of strangers,” Shumlin told a room full of lawmakers, citizens and members of the media at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity’s Burlington headquarters on Tuesday.
“There is not a Vermonter who wants to see low-income Vermonters cold in their homes, making terrible choices between heat, the medicine they need to survive, food, clothing and keeping warm.”
Without these state funds, said Vermont Fuel Assistance Chief Richard Moffi, the average household benefit for fuel would be almost halved. But before the first wave of these funds are allocated in November, they must first be approved.
Shumlin’s Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding said that he expects the state’s Emergency Board to allocate the majority of these funds next Tuesday. The board has the power to allocate $7 million set aside by the Legislature for such issues, which is where last year’s funding came from, and it can allocate $900,000 in excess weatherization funds.
The remaining $900,000, said Spaulding, would have to come from the Legislature in January. There is about $3.9 million in state monies that were set aside to make up for federal funds. The administration is requesting that the Legislature allocate funds from that pool.
“It is our understanding, having talked with legislative leaders, that we’re all on board here,” said Spaulding. “We have confidence that we can send out these checks in the middle of November to make sure Vermonters are warm in their homes.”
The numbers and the people
Roughly one month ago, the Shumlin administration learned that Congress was level-funding federal the Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) for Vermont at $19.5 million.
Department of Children and Families’ numbers show that in FY 2012 the department had about $4 million left over in LIHEAP funds from the previous year. This fiscal year, the department only has $1.5 million leftover.
Additionally, Moffi projects that the state’s fuel assistance programs will serve about 28,500 households this year, which would be a more than 5 percent increase from FY 2012 and a nearly 50 percent increase from 2005. Program enrollment between FY2011 and FY2012 rose 2 percent.
The FY 2013 projection for fuel assistance households represents an increase of almost 100 percent from what it was FY 2005. In 2005, the number of households receiving fuel dollars was 14,252. In FY 2013, the projected number is 28,500.
The program saw its largest spike in recent enrollment between fiscal years 2010 and 2011. During that period, the number of fuel assistance beneficiaries jumped up 30 percent, from 20,399 to 26,546 households. The reason behind this rapid rise, said Moffi, is that the state increased the eligibility level for fuel assistance from 125 percent to 185 percent of the federal poverty line in 2010.
This fiscal year, Moffi pointed to the combination of less federal carryover from last year and more projected beneficiaries as the root of the increase in state funding.
Jan Demers, director of the office of economic opportunity, said that of the 8,300 people who came to her organization for fuel assistance, 30 percent of them are employed, 38 percent own their own homes and 20 percent have had some college experience.
“Who are they? They are hardworking Vermonters,” she said. “They are underemployed; one third of them are disabled; and they need our help.”
One of those beneficiaries was present at Shumlin’s announcement. Hester Thompson of Burlington came into the room with the aid of a walker and thanked the governor and the lawmakers for their support.
“I’m grateful for this because if it wasn’t for the help that I get from here, I would be freezing my tootsies off,” she said. “Coming down here helps me a hell of a lot, and I really appreciate it. So, thank you very much.”