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Alarms Sound Around the Country as Moratorium Ends: April 2016 LIHEAP National News Wrap-Up

Writing and Reporting by Jake Brown

 

While the regular LIHEAP winter heating season was winding down around the country throughout April, crisis assistance was still available to those families facing the threat of shut-offs with utility moratoriums expiring nationally at the same time, with CAAs racing to get word out around the country after prominent organizations like the National Rural Electric Cooperative Cooperative Association shared news from Jeannie L. Chaffin, Director of the Office of Community Service, in cautioning that “as of today, OCS has allocated all but 1 percent of the funding available to grantees for FY 2016, pending final budget decisions within HHS.”

 

The Greater Lawrence Community Action Council in Massachusetts, speaking to the looming threat of shut-offs, warned the households it serves that “for clients who had been protected against termination during the winter moratorium period, 2nd reminder notices and final termination notices will be sent out during April (and will continue into the spring, summer and fall).   The first date on which a physical termination can occur is May 2, again, for those who had been protected against termination.  Please let us know if you become aware of any terminations occurring prior to May 2, if the client was protected by the winter moratorium.”

 

Pulling the curtain back on how dynamically CAAs like this one work to protect their customers from the threat of shutoffs, GLCAC revealed a negotiated path to relief wherein, “if a customer has been terminated and wants to get onto the AMPs, most companies will require that the customer pay 25% of the overdue bill as a condition of getting service restored and then being placed on the AMP…EXAMPLE:  The customer gets onto the arrearage management program, owing $1,200 so that the monthly credits for making each payment are $100.  The company tells the customer that the monthly payment obligation is $80.  The customer pays $80 in months 1 and 2, but misses months 3 and 4 so the company sends a letter telling the customer he or she is in default.  The customer then also misses month 5.  But in month 6, the customer pays $320, making up the 3 missed payments (for months 3,4, 5) and also including the month 6 payment.  The customer is restored on the AMP and gets 4 months of AMP credits ($400).

 

John J. Drew, President/CEO of Action for Boston Development, expressed concern for their “natural gas and electric customers who have run up enormous heating bills this winter will miss out on financial help they are entitled to and have their utilities shut down.  Our doors are open and we can help eligible families and seniors.  This has been a brutal winter and everyone has seen increasingly high heating bills. Electric rates are up more than 30 percent.  While there has been a lot of news coverage about families struggling to pay for heating oil, spring is the time when the other shoe drops. The winter moratorium on utility shut-downs ended April 1 and those with high balances on their bills are at risk of getting their utilities cut off, setting the stage for devastating situations for low-income working families and older residents.”

 

Offering a creative collection of options for relief past LIHEAP’s expiration date, the Valley Breeze began by shining a spotlight on the Rhode Island Good Neighbor Energy Fund as a potential resource, reporting that after “the moratorium on energy shut-offs…end for all customers not on protected status, the Rhode Island Good Neighbor Energy Fund and United Way of Rhode Island, its administrator, are encouraging those in need of energy assistance for call United Way 2-1-1.  The RIGNF’s ‘Warm The Neighbor’ campaign relies on support from individuals, families, local companies and sponsors including National Grid, Dominion Resources, Entergy RISEC, Pascoag Utility District, Trans-Canada’s Ocean State Power and Petro Home Services.”

 

Anthony Maione, President/CEO of United Way of Rhode Island, emphasized that “with the moratorium on energy shut-offs lifted at the end of this week, we’re entering a time of the year when the need for energy assistance is highest.  We encourage all those who are having trouble making ends meet to contact our 24-hour call center by dialing 2-1-1 or visit a local Community Action Program agency to see if your household qualifies for assistance from the Fund.”  Echoing his colleague, the state Public Utilities Commissioner Paul Roberti offered a bit of relief with his office’s announcement of an delay to the end of the moratorium as households worked to catch up, commenting that “consistent with previous years and I have no problem extending the deadline,” a move that George Wiley Center director Camilo Viveiros confirmed “is an important decision that’s going to help all of the utility customers avoid having their electricity terminated in the next couple of weeks.”

 

In neighboring Vermont, energy assistance advocates were battling with the state house over a reduction in funding for Vermont Fuel Assistance, the local version of the Federal LIHEAP program and a vital supplemental layer of assistance to absorb the shortfall in help from Washington when need exceeds allotted dollars.  Blaming the reduction on a competing need to inject greater funding into the state’s weatherization efforts, Rep. Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, and chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee reasoned that “this year, there was a really big push on weatherization, and there were a growing number of people getting frustrated that revenues for weatherization are declining.  When talking with advocates who support weatherization and LIHEAP, the overwhelming decision was, we want to make sure weatherization gets the money, LIHEAP puts heat into a home. Weatherization keeps heat in a home year after year after year.”  Vermont’s Low Income Advocacy Council legislative liaison Karen Lafayette spoke up in defense of maintaining previous year levels for energy assistance, arguing that “both of these programs need to be maintained and need to be maintained for that population over 150 percent (of the federal poverty level). It’s not an ‘either/or’ scenario.  The bottom line is, this is an extremely important benefit for low-income Vermonters, who are often spending more than 10 percent of their income to heat their homes.”

 

Battling the same (threat) down South, in Arkansas, the CBS affiliate Channel 11 reported that even though the “CADC – a private nonprofit community action agency that was formed in 1965 to fight and win the ‘War on Poverty.’ The mission of CADC is to improve the quality of life and build strong communities in Arkansas – will stop accepting applications for the regular Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) utility assistance program on March 30th in Pulaski County, applications for the Crisis LIHEAP intervention program will continue through April 15th or until funds are depleted, whichever comes first.”

 

Sensing a similar urgency in the Midwest, the Upper Des Moines Opportunity community action organization shared an update with the media on the metrics of their Winter heating season as it headed toward its conclusion, noting that with “another month and another LIHEAP season coming to a close. Our LIHEAP numbers are up with the increase of poverty guidelines from 150% to 175%. Clients have until April 30th to apply and the moratorium ends April 1. We are receiving calls for the upcoming April 1st disconnects. We are trying to make payment arrangements using utility programs and crisis money to prevent disconnects.”  Iowa Legal Aid encouraged vulnerable residents to have hope as “utility companies must offer a payment agreement to most customers with past due balances.”

 

Meanwhile, KJAN Radio Atlantic interviewed Iowa Utilities Board spokesman Don Tormey – who reported that their research shows customers owe more than 39 million dollars from overdue utility bills, and that includes about nine million from customers in the energy assistance program – and urged “those customers to work closely with their utility company, or possibly their community action agency to arrange payment agreements with their utility or to continue to apply for energy assistance payments through April 30th.  Utilities want to work with customers. It costs money to go out there and disconnect to post the property to give proper notice to the customer prior to any disconnection — they are required to do that, so, it takes time and effort and money to do that, they want to keep those customers.  Customers can always call the Iowa Utilities Board customer service staff, and we will assist them with issues that are not resolved directly with their utility.”

 

Sources:
1.) https://www.glcac.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=dep_intro&dept_id=8
2.) http://www.thv11.com/news/local/regular-liheap-will-end-march-30/106320494
3.)http://www.bostonabcd.org/abcd-urges-families-seniors-to-get-help-with-utility-bills-now.aspx
4.)http://www.udmo.com/Outreach%20Center%20Newsletter/PaloAlto/22016%20April%20Newsletter.pdf
5.) http://www.iowalegalaid.org/resource/the-end-of-the-wintermoratorium#sthash.GB6k1CFV.dpuf
6.)http://www.kjan.com/index.php/2016/03/deadline-approaching-to-end-utility-disconnection-moratorium/
7.) http://www.ect.coop/public-policy-watch/legislation/335m-released-for-liheap/90675
8.) http://www.valleybreeze.com/2016-04-13/cumberland-lincoln-area/moratorium-energy-shut-offs-be-lifted-friday#.Vy4ZH-Rq2M0
9.) http://www.ecori.org/social-justice-archive/2016/4/12/gas-and-electric-cutoffs-delayed-for-two-weeks
10.) http://www.timesargus.com/article/20160403/NEWS03/160409910

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