Indiana: LIHEAP Local Profile

February 25th, 2013

By Jake Brown

Known as the Hoosier state for its famed college basketball team, Indiana has long held a unique distinction among the Midwestern states as “the crossroads of America.”  This past year, that moniker took on a crisis-like context amid being hit in its winter season by frigid, bitter temperatures across the same wind-swept plains that in the summer are routinely scorched by punishing heat waves.  USA Today reported in July, 2012 on the severity of the “nation’s record-setting heat wave” that the punishing heat had been “caused by a high-pressure system that loitered for days over the Plains and the Midwest. Combined with a drought that has left little moisture in the ground to provide evaporative cooling, desert-like conditions persisted over much of the country…A Sampling of worst-hit cities by the 2012 heat wave (included)…Indianapolis: 4 days over 100.”

Heading into the winter of 2012, the state’s thousands of LIHEAP-dependant families received little relief on their utility bills, as air conditioners turned on high shifted to heaters, in both thermostat temperature dials and accompanying heating bills.  This cyclical reality of hardship was confirmed by Energy Assistance Program Manager Taura Edwards, who revealed that “at the start of this winter, we saw a lot of clients whose heating sources were disconnected at the end of winter and had not been reconnected prior to the start of the winter season. We also saw fairly high electric bills from the warm summer.”

Among those whose lives are most threatened by both summer and winter weather were the state’s elderly population, who June Lyle, AARP’s Indiana State Director shared with Inside Indiana Business accounted for “26 percent…of Hoosier households assisted by LIHEAP last year,” adding that in light of that statistic, “this program is critical to the health and well-being of so many of our seniors.”  Because “elderly and disabled clients account for nearly 50 percent of our population,” Director Edwards explained that the state prioritizes their application process accordingly to ensure that “these clients receive their applications in the mail prior to the start of the season. This practice ensures that their benefits are stable and there isn’t a disruption in their service. There has not been a spike in services to them.”  Another advocate for this ever-vulnerable demographic, Kevin Polivick, a leader within the Indiana Community Action Association, underscored to Inside Indiana Business that this order of seniority in the application   process is appropriate because “LIHEAP dollars are prioritized to assist those who are least able to withstand the extremes of cold and heat: the elderly, the disabled, and children under the age of 6. Unaffordable utility costs are also one of the greatest obstacles for homeowners financially struggling to stay in their homes. We are therefore tremendously grateful for…LIHEAP to help these vulnerable homeowners stay warm and housed.”

Indiana’s political apparatus has remained a unified front of support for the program, taking up many bi-partisan measures to make up for shortfalls in Federal funding to ensure the maximum number of households helped to stay warm or cool, depending on the season.  A year-round commitment, the state began 2012 with a strong show of such support when the Courier Press reported that the Indiana State House was considering passage of an exemption for Hoosier households that qualified for LIHEAP from paying a 7% sales tax on their utilities.  Sponsored by State Representative Peggy Welch of Bloomington, she reasoned that the move was a necessary in light of complaints from constituents about skyrocketing utility bills against the backdrop of the aforementioned extreme temperatures, offering to that end that “the No. 1 call for the 211 program is people who need help with their utility bills…(so) the state is now stepping up to say: Yes we want to have an investment also in taking care of our low income families.”

The state’s Governor, Mitch Daniels, in March of last year unveiled another new measure aimed at providing relief for LIHEAP-dependant families by pumping an additional $4 million into state funding for LIHEAP.  Courtesy of House Bill 1141, the state opted to invest their share of a multi-shake mortgage foreclosure settlement into expanded funding for a program that The Statehouse File reported “will receive about $82.3 million for LIHEAP this year, down from more than $107 million (in 2011).”  Translating that loss into the punishing impact its had on the State’s ability to help the maximum number of households applying for assistance, Director Edwards    “like every state, there is a definite impact when the block grant decreases. However, our office strives to find a balance between providing a benefit amount that will assist with the clients’ energy burden while maximizing the number of clients we can serve throughout the state.”

Indiana’s LIHEAP program has enjoyed another staunch ally in partnership with their utility providers, who Director Edwards confirms “have good working relationships with Indiana.  Part of our communication strategy with the utilities has been: providing training calls the companies or statewide associations, allowing them to speak at training sessions for local providers, and sending out bi-monthly program updates. Indiana also has a consortium of local providers with a heart for ensuring that low income clients are served during the winter months called ‘Coalition to Keep Indiana Warm.’ This group includes: State lead office, utilities, state United Way association, and other statewide service providers that impact low income clients.”  Prominent examples of that cooperative effort in action within the last year have included Indiana Michigan Power’s announcement in November, 2012 that it would continue funding its Energy Share program for the 8th year in a row.  Described by the utility provider as an energy assistance partnership with the state’s Community Action Association, the utility donated $200,000 to help keep Hoosier households warm, with the company’s Director of Communications and Community Relations, Sarah Bodner, sharing of her company’s efforts toward the latter end that “Indiana Michigan Power is grateful for the support of our community action partners as we reach out to help customers who are most in need, especially during the heating season,” adding that “Low-income customers may also qualify for energy efficiency programs designed to reduce the overall energy usage in the household.”

Elaborating on the history of the program’s progress in helping Indiana households keep warm, Bodner added that “since the shareholder-funded program began, $900,000 has been offered for low-income energy assistance. In the past year, nearly 1,000 customers received an average of $195 for energy assistance.  More recently, in February of this year, Duke Energy – another of the state’s largest utility providers – announced that it would contribute $3.5 million over the next 5 years to the utility’s ‘Helping Hand’ program, which the LIHEAP Clearing House reported “gives eligible customers up to $300 toward their electric bills. Before this current boost, program participants could only receive $100. The new funding will be distributed in $700,000 amounts annually over the five years. This year’s infusion will be combined with the $100,000 already contributed by Duke Energy customers, giving Helping Hand a total of $800,000.”

The state’s focus in the longer term has also focused on programs like energy conservation and weatherization, which Director Edwards explained begins with “our office having updated the energy education materials so that the agencies can provide energy conservation tips as a part of the EAP application process. Indiana strongly supports the weatherization efforts within the LIHEAP program. Indiana has the great luxury of having the EAP and Weatherization programs within the same department of the same agency. Our primary charge is energy conservation and education for our clients. We see an average of 19-20 percent in energy savings after weatherization is completed.  With our community action agencies, who are important intermediaries between the clients, utilities, and the state office, each year, the state office hosts an annual training and end of year wrap up session with the community action agencies and at these sessions, the agencies provide feedback about the impact of policy changes, offer suggestions to current policies and technologies, and input into the program implementation process.”

As 2013 unfolds, while Director Edwards reports on the negative front that “last year, benefits were lower in preparation for funding cuts,” in looking ahead into the rest of 2013, good news was on the horizon for LIHEAP families because “the benefit amount is being increased from the 2012 level to cover some of the impact of climactic changes on their energy bills.”  Regardless of how the benefit levels rise and fall as states like Indiana sail the stormy seas of Washington’s budget battles, Director Edwards feels proud of the fact that even “As the benefit levels have ebbed and flowed, Indiana has preserved at least 90 percent of its client pool from year to year,” adding in closing on LIHEAP’s behalf that the program will always remain vital to hundreds of thousands of households around her state for the simple fact that “LIHEAP provides support to a basic life necessity that can often times be overlooked.”

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