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December 21st, 2011
06:54 PM ET

Fewer logs on the fire to help the needy with heat this winter

Dave Schechter
Senior National Editor

Gusts of hot air from visiting presidential hopefuls are not enough to ease the chill for many in Iowa and New Hampshire and heat from that other thermal source, Washington, D.C., won’t go as far this winter to aid those from New England to the Southwest who need help to keep their homes warm.

Washington is throwing fewer logs – in the form of taxpayer dollars – on the fire this winter. In budget year 2011, the federal government distributed $4.7 billion to states through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The Obama administration wanted a 2012 budget that reduced LIHEAP funding to nearly $2.6 billion (a return to levels before a 2009 energy price spike), but Congress opted for $3.5 billion in the massive government spending bill the House and Senate recently passed and which has been sent to the White House for the President’s signature.

The situation is enough to scare even author Stephen King.

Initial allotments of LIHEAP money to the states were reduced and in some, already exhausted. The National Energy Assistance Directors Association expects more than 9 million households (one-third more than in 2008), to seek assistance this winter, a record number that could grow if unemployment nationally remains high [8.6 percent in November] or if energy prices climb.

For those heating with oil, this winter’s forecast is not encouraging. CNNMoney reported: “The price of heating the average home with oil is expected to jump 10 percent this year to an average of $2,535 over the winter heating season (October 1 through March 31),” citing the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), 45 percent more than just two years ago.

While heating oil consumption nationally has declined by more than two-thirds in recent decades, one-in-four homes in the Northeast still heats with oil. "In some places, the natural gas infrastructure is just not there," Neil Gamson, an economist and forecaster for the EIA, told CNNMoney. There are no gas lines in some older Northeastern cities."

CNNMoney reported that most homeowners nationally (56 percent according to the gas industry) use natural gas to heat their homes while fewer than 10 percent burn oil, as access to the cheaper gas option improves. The EIA projected that gas will be 2.2 percent more expensive this winter season, with the average homeowner paying about $732 to heat their home, nearly 18 percent less expensive than two years ago.

“The price of fuel products has increased significantly to the point that the overall cost of heating a home has become an amount way beyond our clients ability to pay,” Louise Bergeron, Energy Director of Southern New Hampshire Services, Inc., told CNN in an e-mail. Bergeron said that 10 percent of those enrolling for fuel assistance with her agency had never applied for such aid before.

Maine received $23 million in LIHEAP this year, compared with $56 million the year before, resulting in a reduction of the average benefit from $800 to about $300.

A radio host at a station the famed author and native son owns in Bangor, Maine, broadcast from an outdoors hut to raise $70,000 for heating oil assistance. The Stephen and Tabitha King Charitable Foundation matched that amount. “Everybody is just hurting, and everybody is scared,” he told The New York Times. “If we took everything we had and tossed it into the pot, it still wouldn’t make much of a difference.” Nonetheless, “There was no question of not helping when we saw how much the cut was.”

According to the Bangor Daily News, the Kings' efforts have raised more than $240,000. “Tabby and I are grateful to everybody who worked to provide heat to people in our area who have come up short,” King said several days ago. “Hopefully next year there will be less need and more help from the state and local governments.”

The impact of reduced federal funding is that “the poorest of the poor have no chance of staying warm,’’ Jon Carlson, executive director of Self Help Inc., a nonprofit agency in the Boston area, told The Boston Globe before Congress passed the budget. Self Help serves 30 communities and is one of 22 agencies throughout Massachusetts that distributes the aid.  “If more funds aren’t awarded, it could have a catastrophic impact on some of our clients,’’ Carlson warned. “Heat is a basic requirement, and people will do almost anything to stay warm. There could be a tragedy that might have been avoided if something doesn’t change.’’

The equation is similar in Minnesota, where state officials are coping with a LIHEAP allocation more than halved from  the previous year. Stretching this year’s dollars means the state hopes to help 130,000 households this year, compared with 173,000 the year before.

Brandon Avila, a spokesman for the advocacy group Campaign for Home Energy Assistance, told Minnesota Public Radio that LIHEAP should be a greater priority for Congress and the White House. "You have to look at a program like LIHEAP and you've got to look at some others and you have to decide which ones are the core of our social safety net," he said. "We would make the case that LIHEAP is in that category, even during the tough budget time."

Minnesota state Commerce Commissioner Michael Rothman echoed sentiment heard in other states coping with increased need at a time of reduced federal assistance. "We will do everything we can with whatever resources we have to meet the needs and do what we can with it," he told Minnesota Public Radio.

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