By Jake Brown

The campaign to improve energy efficiency kicked off 2013 with a pair of HIGH PROFILE efforts to expand key areas within its purview, those of expanding the focus on the importance of weatherization and energy efficiency, and more locally, making up for the short-fall in funding on the state level where LIHEAP assistance levels were concerned. Beginning with the national side of that drive, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer – Chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee -introduced a bill that Politico.com reported aimed at improving “building energy efficiency as one means of mitigating climate change.”  Boxer commented within announcing the legislation that her focus on weatherization of Federal Office Buildings was designed to lead by example and illustrate that where energy efficiency was concerned: “There doesn’t have to be ‘a bill’ on climate, there are going to be many approaches.”

 

The first bill being pushed by Boxer addressed the embattled GSA (General Services Administration) – who, arguably as part of their image makeover and toward the end of demonstrating that the U.S. Government was doing its part to promote and implement enhanced energy efficiency efforts throughout the thousands of properties owned and managed by the GSA around the country – would be required under the legislation to “identify ways to improve efficiency, reduce costs and pay for themselves within 10 years as well as calculate costs that could be saved. GSA would have to report to Congress and the public within a year on the energy and cost savings tied to improving efficiency and set minimum energy-intensity and lighting-efficiency standards for all building leases entered into by the federal government. GSA would also be required to detail energy and water-efficiency information in the leases it submits to Congress for approval,” Politico.com reported.

 

Boxer’s other focus, on national energy efficiency, was announced in a letter to the Economic Development Administration, where she announced her intent to sponsor a bill modeled after The Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act that aimed- according to Politico.com’s report – to set up a program to “fund projects in local communities to improve energy efficiency, toughen public works to respond to disasters and save money.”  Elaborating personally on the reach of the proposed program, Boxer explained that among other advantages, “this TIFIA-like program, which I call BIFIA (for buildings), can help a community invest in clean technologies that reduce energy demands, lower energy bills, and promote more durable energy systems. Leveraging private-sector funds while promoting investments in jobs, infrastructure, innovation and technology can help communities keep pace with the changing global economy.”

On the local level, energy efficiency – specifically in the form of support for the LIHEAP program – received another high profile endorsement with the donation of a rare, collector’s edition copy of the novel ‘The Regulators’ by legendary suspense author Stephen King during a fuel drive in frigid Maine as part of a fundraiser auction.   Reporting on the donation, The Bangor Daily News reporting the fundraiser was necessary because “although they’ve been told that the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, funds are coming, the money has yet to arrive…Signed by King under his pen name Richard Bachman, (the book is)…listed as being worth $1,450 to nearly $2,000.”

Speaking to the difference the money from the book’s sale would immediately make to local residents in need of assistance in lue of the LIHEAP aid arriving, the fundraiser’s head, Sister Lucille MacDonald of the Emmaus Center, shared with the Bangor Daily News that “this is a great idea, and it is wonderful that Stephen agreed to sign the book.  People are so generous, and I am so grateful…I just got off the phone with a woman with a desperate need for fuel. The stories are just heart wrenching.  You just never know what little ways people are struggling on the opposite side, to try and find ways and means to help people… People are sitting at home under blankets.  People are struggling. What do they do in the interim time? We are the gap to help these people.”

Local Bangor television station, WABITV, reporting in greater depth on the human side of the headlines focused on the real stories of freezing, desperate households suffering throughout the state, quoted one community action organization’s LIHEAP Division Manager, Barbara Stone of Penquis Cap., confirming to the station that “(we’ve been) very busy. To date, we’ve taken over ten thousand applications and we’ve served about half of them, spending over 3.5 million dollars, at this point.”  Adding to the stress all around, Director Stone candidly shared, was the shame on the faces of so many of the state’s hard working blue-collar families applying for aid, explaining that “they’re frustrated; they don’t even want to do it. They come in and they’re like, ‘I don’t even want to be here,’ but you know it’s like, you’re eligible just like the next person. You lost your job. You should be applying for assistance.”

Reflecting on why the state is undertaking such a hustle to bring extra dollars so urgently this month, another prominent Charity and longstanding LIHEAP ally, United Way of Eastern Maine’s President and CEO, John Kuropchak, added in comments to the TV station that “this year is especially bad.  I think two things have an impact on that. First of all, heating oil prices are well over $3 a gallon. In addition, there have been severe cuts, both last year and the year before in federal assistance to low, moderate income families and to seniors. When you add the two together, it almost spells disaster.”  In addition to reaching out to apply for assistance with utility bills, Kuropchak also underscored the importance of households taking advantage of longer term solutions to lowering their energy costs, namely “winterization, weatherization, putting plastic on windows, doing new weather stripping around doors to bring down the actual cost and consumption.  We (also)…have a program called financial coaching which will help individuals budget for, and prepare for these spikes in heating costs.”

In neighboring Vermont, Governor Peter Shumlin, one of the nation’s leading LIHEAP advocated on the state level, made as a centerpiece to his annual Budget (or State of the State as its commonly known) Address with the announcement of his intent to focus on making up from the state level the Federal shortfall in LIHEAP budgeting, reasoning the move was a necessary one as “we heat about sixty percent of our homes with traditional heating oil – a huge and growing expense for Vermonters, and a huge cost to our environment. Meanwhile, we have for several winters now kept needy Vermonters from freezing in their homes by scrambling to pay for heating oil as the federal government callously slashes its contribution to the LIHEAP program. We must do better. That is why my budget proposes to join our neighbors in Connecticut and Massachusetts by assessing a ten-percent surcharge on the retail value of break open tickets and applying the $17 million raised to comprehensive energy program funding. I propose to allocate the $17 million for three purposes: First, to keep low income Vermonters warm in the winter through the State’s first-ever base budget contribution to LIHEAP, at the level of $6 million. Let’s recognize the sad fact that Washington is unlikely to fund this critical program adequately and let’s do something about it, so that all Vermonters stay warm in the winter.”

 

Echoing the governor, the Conservation Law Foundation made an impassioned case in an editorial published by The Vermont Digger that the time was NOW “for affordable heat.”  Perhaps motivated by the news that the state had emerged as among the nation’s leaders in electric energy savings, with $775 million since 2000 saved through the state’s efforts, the Foundation in its editorial made a noted point to single out LIHEAP as a program that “every year Vermont struggles to fund…With affordable heat, Vermont can reduce the funds needed and can use LIHEAP dollars to help more Vermonters. Cutting fuel use by one-quarter means that for every four homes that are weatherized, help is available for one additional family,” concluding with the persuasive argument that “Vermont’s commitment to affordable heat is our ticket to more comfortable homes and businesses, and a thriving and affordable clean energy economy.”

 

In Virginia, state officials were praised for their efforts to make applying for LIHEAP assistance more consumer-convenient with their introduction of online portals where Med-Tech Media reported that “as healthcare companies try to bring consumer-friendly technologies to patients, some states are working to do the same with government services. Especially in healthcare and social services, government information executives see a large potential for expanding online transactions and simplifying administration with better IT.”  First introduced in March, 2012 by Virginia’s Department of Social Services, the Electronic Health and Human Resources Project – a $101 Million program financed under a Government Modernization initiative founded by Governor Bob McDonnell – the program, called ‘CommonHelp,’ has been adopted by all 120 of the state’s social service offices, and according to Med-Tech Media’s report, “the success of the citizen portals, which are set to be available for Medicaid, TANF, SNAP and LIHEAP by 2014.”

 

Down in the Midwest, demand for LIHEAP assistance was so popular that the North Central Arkansas Development Council- which serves Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas- sold out of LIHEAP spots by 11 on the first morning their office opened offering sign-up appointments.  Fulton County Coordinator JoAnn Lowrie explained that “our office is allocated about $8,000 a week, and it was pretty much gone by 11 a.m,” while NADC Director Brad Cummings added that throughout all of the organization’s five offices, “the first day in Stone County more than 150 people came in to apply for assistance.  People who are familiar with the program know assistance is available on a first come, first served basis, so they get in here right away.  We had about 500 to 600 applicants in the entire five county area the first day (Jan. 7). It was busy all week.”  Comparing demand, which Director Cummings revealed to The Southern Missouri News was up this winter over last year, he explained that 2013 was already proving more stressful due to the fact that “last winter, funds for the regular assistance program did not run out until April because weather was mild, but the recent Christmas snow storm and cold weather probably ratcheted bills up, so more families are needing help paying December bills.”

 

Quoting residents throughout the region among those 600 applicant families to put a finer point on why crisis assistance requests have been skyrocketing, one such recipient who opted to remain anonymous, told the Southern Missouri News that things got so dire for his family that “we have closed off our house for the winter and use just one room. We try to stretch our propane through the winter.  In the crisis program, we should be able to get 100 or 150 gallons of propane, which is about the only time we can get any.”  Another resident, speaking for the elderly who rely on LIHEAP assistance to help supplement the limitations of the fixed income they’re already relying upon to keep the heat on, offered the paper a “look at this utility bill: I owe $214 this month, and only get $859 a month from Social Security. This program, which I can get help twice a year, is a big help!”

That grateful sentiment continued across state lines in Ohio and Kentucky, where another resident- Devan Fabre, a mother of 5- who relied in January on LIHEAP for her family’s literal survival, told Cinncinnati.com as part of a cover story on the life-saving difference the program was making for Ohioans day in and out that “if this program wasn’t here, I’d probably be living on the streets.  If you get a disconnect notice when you’re living in Section 8 housing, you lose your Section 8. With me having five kids, I wouldn’t have anywhere else to go.”  Reporting that Fabre was one of a staggering 320 families from across counties shared on the border between Ohio and Kentucky who flocked to their local community action agencies on a Monday Morning in mid-January to apply on the first day of Crisis Assistance applications.  With $1,085,607 available among those 5 counties in crisis assistance – a figure reduced by 23% from 2012’s figure of $1,414,954 according to the aforementioned website – and $82,918.84 handed out in just that single Monday, demand is clearly eating through funding at a rapid pace.  Still, another resident who kept from freezing to death in January due to the assistance, Benita Gregory of Covington, KY, stated in unequivocal terms and tone that “this program saved my life, I don’t know what I would have done without it,” underscoring why bi-partisan calls for funding increases at the Federal Level continued to ring out throughout the New Year, as well as local announcements around the country by Congressmen and State Representatives and Senators encouraging residents in need of LIHEAP winter crisis assistance to reach out and apply as soon as possible.

In Pennsylvania, one such call came from PA State Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Jefferson, who emphasized in an interview with The Uniontown Herald Standard aimed at reaching out to households throughout his district in need of aid with the message that “LIHEAP crisis grants…are a key part of the safety net, as a recent report noted that almost 16,000 Pennsylvania households entered the winter season without heat-related utility service… (These grants) address emergencies such as broken heating equipment, a lack of fuel, or a danger of being without fuel.”  A bi-partisan message indeed, state Rep. Matt Gabler (R-Clearfield/Elk), added with earnest encouragement that “if you have an existing heating emergency and already received a cash grant late last year during the first phase of LIHEAP, you need only call your local county assistance office to request the crisis grant.”

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