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Outlook for fuel assistance is bleak

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Posted on October 24, 2011 |
By John Flowers



ADDISON COUNTY — Richard Moffi, fuel program chief for the state of Vermont, has grown accustomed to seeing Congress and the Oval Office haggle over funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

Negotiators have historically started at a low number but eventually agreed on a LIHEAP figure that was at least equal to, or greater, than the year before so that qualifying citizens in cold parts of the country could get the fuel subsidies they needed to stay warm during the winter.

But Moffi, who has worked with heating assistance programs back into the 1990s, is skeptical about the prospect of a happy ending this year.

“I’m more pessimistic and a lot more scared than I have ever been,” Moffi said on Thursday.

That fear of major cuts to LIHEAP is based on President Barack Obama’s proposal that the program be funded at $1.98 billion for fiscal year 2012, which began Oct. 1. That sum is less than half of the $4.5 billion level at which LIHEAP was funded last year and substantially less that the $3.4 billion mark currently being pitched by the Senate Appropriations Committee and the U.S. House.

The president’s funding proposal would translate into a LIHEAP budget of $11.6 million for Vermont for this coming winter, resulting in an average subsidy of just under $400 per qualifying household for the season, according to Moffi. That’s less than half the $866 average benefit received by the 26,500 households that qualified for LIHEAP funding last year, Moffi noted.

To make matters worse, heating fuel prices are considerably higher right now than they were at the same time last year. The cost of No. 6 heating fuel oil currently averages $3.57 per gallon, up from $2.70 at this time last year and $2.40 per gallon in September of 2009, according information provided the Vermont Fuel Dealers’ Association.

David Yacavone is commissioner of the Vermont Department of Children and Families, which presides over the state’s fuel assistance program for the Vermont Agency of Human Services. Yacavone noted that applications for LIHEAP assistance are trending 10 percent higher than they were at this time last year. That means more competition for scarcer funds.

Moffi conservatively projects that 27,800 families will seek fuel assistance through LIHEAP this year.

Congress has yet to agree on a fiscal year 2012 budget to send to the Oval Office. In the meantime, programs like LIHEAP are operating under a continuing resolution until a spending plan is approved. David Carle, spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said continuing resolutions typically provide for the same funding (prorated) as the previous year. The current continuing resolution will expire in mid-November, he said.

Carle acknowledged that while Vermont’s Congressional delegation is working hard to maximize LIHEAP funding, the task will be tougher this year. He noted the federal budget deadlock and the tough economy, factors that are putting pressure on every funding decision.

“It’s as difficult an environment for LIHEAP as we’ve ever seen,” Carle said.

Still, he said Leahy is optimistic Congress will be able to improve on President Obama’s LIHEAP proposal.

“It’s just a matter of how much,” Carle said.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., on Thursday sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services calling for the immediate release of “as much LIHEAP funding as possible” under the current continuing resolution.

“Even in good economic times, LIHEAP is a critical lifeline for countless Vermonters,” Welch said. “Now, with wages stagnate, a tough economy, rising fuel prices and Vermonters struggling to recover from Tropical Storm Irene, it is even more critical. Winter is upon us in the Northeast and we need to get the money to those who need it now.”

BLEAK OUTLOOK

Officials are not upbeat about the prospect of state government being able to kick in some money to supplement the LIHEAP resources. When the Legislature convenes in January it will face a tough budget process that will include an unforeseen variable: Expenses related to road and bridge repairs associated with Tropical Storm Irene.

Meanwhile, low-income residents are becoming nervous about the prospect of getting enough fuel to heat their homes for the winter, said Karen Haury, executive director of Addison Community Action/Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (ACA/CVOEO). The organization funnels aid to residents who are on the verge of running out of fuel and/or seeing their electricity shut off. ACA/CVOEO can tap resources from the federal Crisis Fuel Assistance Program, as well as through the Warmth and Shareheat programs offered by Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service Corp., respectively.

Those emergency funds are helpful but aren’t meant to cover the long-term needs of clients, Haury noted.

Moffi said Vermont is anticipating a total of $2.5 million through the Crisis Fuel Assistance Program, a sum that is not likely to make a huge dent in clients’ winter fuel bills.

“That $2.5 million won’t last terribly long,” said Moffi.

“People are afraid they will not get a check, and if they do, they think it will be so little that it won’t do much good,” Haury said.

A family of four cannot earn more than $3,447 per month to qualify for the federal fuel subsidies distributed through the state, according to information provided by ACA/CVOEO.

Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) is another organization trying to help people facing heating fuel and other utility crises. But Jeanne Montross, HOPE’s executive director, stressed the organization does not have a lot of resources — just enough to help someone avert a power shut-off or put a little fuel in their tank while they search for a more permanent solution.

HOPE has traditionally maintained a pile of donated wood to distribute to clients. Unfortunately, HOPE hardly has any wood reserves right now.

“Luckily, we have had a long-warm autumn,” Montross said.

“I think it is going to be a very tough winter.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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