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LIHEAP Funds Critical in High-Heat Iowa

Writing and reporting by Jake Brown


Iowa is traditionally one of the Midwest’s hottest states during the summer months, to the extreme that even this spring, the heat was looming large, with reporting in back in March that “temperatures reached the 90s Monday across a large swath from western Iowa through much of Nebraska and western Kansas even as three full days of winter remain on the calendar.”  With summer underway, that trend has become the norm across much of the state, as the Iowa Storm Chasing Network added in a news update on June 20th that “the heat and humidity will be building back into the state by the weekend…By Saturday, the heat will be on! Highs will be soaring into the mid 80’s to lower 90’s across the state. The warmest locations will be across southern Iowa….Heat indices across southern Iowa by Saturday afternoon will be near or above 100°F! A few of the models have a few locations topping out at a feel like temperature of 105°F-107°F.”



Facing those kinds of temperatures all summer, John Burnquist, LIHEAP Program Planner for the Iowa Dept. of Human Rights/D.C.A.A, sat down exclusively to discuss how the state’s LIHEAP officials are gearing up to battle the heat, starting with his office’s plan to “offer fans and air conditioners in the summer for those who are medically necessary.”   Coupled with the strain the heat and humidity puts on utility bills for struggling households throughout the state, many are in the same time dealing with “disconnects coming out of our winter moratorium,” Burnquist explained.  In response, “we do have crisis assistance, which we offer in the summertime.”



Confirmed by a Des Moines Register cover story on the aforementioned crisis faced by “many of the families disconnected from power and heat…(that) are still working to pay off high bills from last year’s record cold year,”  alongside the crisis assistance LIHEAP offers, the state’s utility providers pitch in as well, thanks to what Burnquist highlights as a requirement by law that they “offer a payment plan coming out of the moratorium for those that need one, and then a second one as well in case they renegotiate that.  The CAAs assist with those and do a lot of the vendor negotiation, referrals, and things like that.”



Elaborating on the vital roles that both the state’s utilities and Community Action Agencies play in helping LIHEAP dollars reach those in need of assistance, Burnquist – starting with the CAAs on the front-line – confirmed that the “18 Community Action Agencies in this state do our intake for us, and we contract with them for outreach.  We require that every county – and we have 99 in this state – have a LIHEAP office, open 16 hours per week to take applications.  We require every agency to send out a press release at the beginning of the application season, not only when we do our early enrollments, but in the heating season, also in October when we do early enrollments for Seniors and the disabled, but again in November for the regular program.”



“Secondly, regulated utilities – natural gas and electric providers, which comprise a majority of our applicants – are required to notice in their bills every fall of the availability of the program.  Our regulated utilities are required to have a customer contribution, which includes our big 3, as well as all the rural electric cooperatives, and municipal electric and natural gas companies as well.  I think we have a pretty good relationship with the utilities we work with.  We pay in most instances the utility, except for those whose households have heat included in their rent, then they get a direct pay, but for the most part, utilities do receive the benefit directly.  We have 3 major providers, investor-owned, that administer the bulk of our funds.”



Turning to another ally in the fight against higher energy bills, Burnquist shines a spotlight on the state’s aggressive weatherization efforts, underscoring that “I think its very important, and we’ve always had a good cooperative relationship with our weatherization program, they’re in our office, and Iowa transfers the full 15% of our funds to the Weatherization program, and its passed through as cost-savings to the household.”  With results that sell themselves, the Iowa Community Action Organization shared of their progress that “last year 1,905 Iowa families reduced their heating costs through weatherization programs, and 14,363 families received financial support for emergency energy assistance.”
While still expecting a scorching summer season, Burnquist reveals in closing that Iowa has a head-start in meeting whatever demand comes in the door thanks to the fact that, looking back over the winter season, “we had a decrease in applications this year.  The decrease was primarily attributed to a milder winter, and also lower fuel prices this year, specifically in delivered fuels.  A year ago in January, there was a huge upswing in Propane prices, where they had more than quadrupled over January and February, where they just sky-rocketed on a daily basis.  That caused a lot more people with Propane to come in and apply, but this winter, Propane prices have actually gone down, so its been good, but LIHEAP I think – for so many – in particular our elderly households, has been extremely helpful and is definitely a life-saving program.”

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