States React to Milder Weather, Increased Funding
At the winter meeting of the National Energy Assistance Director's Association February 28 and 29, most of the states attending or submitting status reports said the warmer weather had not resulted in a decrease in LIHEAP applications compared to last year.
Reports on LIHEAP from newspaper articles around the country also indicate that need for energy assistance remains strong and local administering agencies are spending their LIHEAP allotments quickly.
Two states that did report decreases in applications, Colorado and Nevada, attributed them to lower income eligibility levels that these states had implemented at the start of the program year.
Some states reported revising their programs as a result of a federal budget that was larger than originally expected. For example, a few states increased their LIHEAP benefits from the levels they had announced at the beginning of the heating season, before federal funding levels were finalized. Colorado increased its benefit from $300 to $344; Connecticut provided an additional $140 payment to an estimated 55,610 utility-heated households, and 23,334 households heating with delivered fuel were eligible for an additional $400. The program's end date was extended from March 15 to May 1, and to May 15 for utility-heated customers at risk of disconnection.
New York will issue a supplemental payment of $150 to all 2012 LIHEAP recipients that pay for heat directly, and it moved its program end date from March 16 to April 13. Oregon is taking applicants off its waiting list and starting a new list, thereby opening LIHEAP up to more households. Several states reported seeing more applicants facing energy crises.
Massachusetts and Vermont received additional energy assistance money through their state legislatures, Vermont in late December and Massachusetts in late February. As a result, Vermont increased its average benefit to $935, from the previously announced $474; Massachusetts increased its maximum benefit for households using heating oil and other delivered fuels to $1,065 from the $675 it had announced earlier in the year.
Illinois has a new statewide PIPP that is taking the pressure off LIHEAP funds because clients can choose whether it is better for them to be enrolled in the PIPP or to receive a LIHEAP payment. Alaska, for the fifth year in a row, has received state funding, which it uses to help families at 150 to 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines, while LIHEAP helps those below 150 FPG.
However, regardless of additional funding, the Northeast states are struggling due to historically high costs of heating oil, which averaged $4.12 per gallon for the first week in March in Massachusetts and $3.86 in Maine, which reported an increasing number of crisis applications and a lower LIHEAP benefit this year. A Vermont agency reported increased applications and said that many families will continue to face challenges despite the infusion of additional federal funds and state funds.
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New Legislation in Rhode Island Benefits Low Income
The Henry Shelton Act, signed by Rhode Island's governor last June, established a new fund to help low-income customers of NGRID, the state's largest utility, prevent shutoffs and pay down arrearages.
The Office of Energy Resources, the state LIHEAP grantee, recommended a monthly LIHEAP Enhancement Charge rate of $0.83 and the Public Utilities Commission approved the distribution charge on all NGRID gas and electric accounts. The charge, implemented January 1, will generate no more than $7.5 million and no less than $6.5 million per year that is deposited in the LIHEAP Enhancement Fund.
The Fund will be used to credit all NGRID customers that receive a LIHEAP benefit with an additional $100-$200. The credit amount is dependent on the number of NGRID customers that receive LIHEAP and will be determined in May after LIHEAP closes. (The program served 37,000 households last year.)
LIHEAP-eligible NGRID customers may also enroll in a payment plan with an arrearage forgiveness component. Participants pay 10 percent of their bill at the start of the program and then pay their current bill plus 1/36 of 40 percent of their arrears each month. After staying current with their bills for 36 months the remainder of their arrearages is forgiven. If a participant misses more than 3 payments in 3 years, or more than 2 consecutive payments in any one year, he/she is dropped from the program.
Another provision of the Act prevents utilities from terminating service to LIHEAP-eligible households if their outstanding bill is $300 or less and not more than two months behind.
The legislation called for a ratepayer advisory board to oversee the Commission's activities related to the fund and make recommendations on current or proposed programs but to date the board has not been formed.
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Annual Low-Income Energy Conference in New Orleans
The National Energy and Utility Affordability Conference (NEUAC) is set for June 11-13 at the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel.
The event combines the annual conferences of the National Fuel Funds Network and the National Low Income Energy Consortium where participants engage in peer-to-peer educational sessions and hear from national experts on programs and policies to help low-income consumers meet their home energy needs. It also includes the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association meeting June 10-11, at the same location.
Calvin Mackie, a New Orleans inventor, activist, critically acclaimed author, internationally renowned motivational speaker and successful entrepreneur, is Monday's keynote speaker. In addition to almost 50 workshops for attendees, a plenary session titled "Nonprofits Facing a New Economic Era" is scheduled for Wednesday.
The registration brochure and conference schedule, including workshop descriptions, are available on NEUAC's website. Visit the website for links to online conference registration, hotel registration and a downloadable registration form. Registration deadline is May 18, with the early bird rate available through May 4 (applications must be postmarked by that date).
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Online Database Provides Energy Assistance Referrals
The LIHEAP Clearinghouse has a new online database that provides referrals to local and tribal LIHEAP intake offices. The database is searchable by state and county and provides contact information for local LIHEAP application offices and links to agency websites, if available. Tribal energy assistance offices are searchable by state. The database is designed to augment the Clearinghouse's toll-free phone referral service (National Energy Assistance Referral or NEAR) which primarily provides state LIHEAP agency contacts. Click on LIHEAP Referrals from any page on the Clearinghouse website to access the database.
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