By Jake Brown
A record snow storm fell this month even after the official start of spring throughout much of the Midwest and Northeast, extending winter heating bills and LIHEAP’s necessity for hundreds of thousands of households throughout the country. Reporting on the storm’s severity, The Connecticut Post quipped that “five days into spring, warm weather and budding flowers were just a rumor Monday as the East Coast endured another blast of winter. A wide-ranging storm that buried parts of the Midwest weakened as it moved east but still managed to carpet lawns and fields in a fresh layer of white. Many schools opened late or closed early, and hundreds of flights were canceled. The cold temperatures and miserable mixture of snow and rain had people longing for more agreeable weather.”
A state who dominated LIHEAP-related news cycle over the early months of the new year, in light of the continually nasty weather and resulting drops in temperatures and rise in thermostats, US Rep Rosa L. DeLauro met with Twenty-three mayors and first selectmen from nearly every community in the 3rd Congressional District to plan for how the state would pick up the slack in LIHEAP funding cuts with the impending sequestration headaches set to hit shortly. Complicating efforts by elected officials and State LIHEAP program personnel to meet the sudden spike in demand due to the aforementioned weather patterns, the Congresswoman – a leading LIHEAP advocate – warned that “this is something that will happen gradually, but with a profound effect,” adding that “we will lose about $4 million in LIHEAP (the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) alone.”
Elaborating on the broader picture of just how devastating the sequestration impact threatened to be on the program’s year-round budget, the Hartford Guardian reported that “the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program, an agency aligned with the Department of Social Services, will receive about $67 million for the CT Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Plan. This is a reduction from its 2012 funding level of $79.5 million. This year’s funding level is even more drastically lower than its 2010 funding level of $107.8 million, according to CT Facts-Campaign for Home Energy Assistance. The resulting cuts could be tough for low-income customers, who benefit the most from these programs, state officials (added).”
Putting a finer point on just how damaging the sequester threatened to be for the lives of tens of thousands of families around the state, a leading community action agency spokeswoman, Nancy Pappas, for the Community Renewal Team, told the Guardian that “home energy funds in Connecticut will be cut by $180 million during the sequester, bringing the average per family service down from $405 a month in 2012 to $375 a month in 2013 under LIHEAP.” Another prominent local Community Action Agency weighed in with the hard fact that for families depending on the program, with Executive Director Pat Wrice of Operation Fuel (a subsidiary of the National Fuel Funds Network), pointing out that “as a result of the sequester, the state received 85 percent of its original funding request, with about $79.5 million for LIHEAP.” To help bridge the difference between the 15% of lost funds and original appropriation level – already reduced from previous budget wars in Washington preceding the sequestration- Rice added that “with the 10 percent rolled over from last year, we will have $88 million for this year.” With LIHEAP serving over 150,000 households throughout the state, according to The Connecticut Mirror, the aforementioned $88 million is still almost $10 million short of the 2011 level of $98.3 million.
In neighboring New York, the state’s most vulnerable residents were feeling left behind as well, with the Syracuse Post Standard in an editorial revealing that “the sequester will affect our communities, including senior citizens,” adding that nation-wide, “nearly 300,000 senior households will be denied The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) assistance paying their heating bills and literally be left in the cold.” Up in New England, longtime leading LIHEAP advocate, U.S. Representative Ed Markey, highlighted the fact that alongside the elderly, other vulnerable demographics affected adversely by the sequestration would include “working families in Massachusetts and around the country” and “during such a harsh winter, no family should also worry about heating their home and keeping their kids and other family members safe from the weather.”
Congressman Markey offered hard data to back up his warning, quoting a report in an interview with the Boston’s Daily Free Press where he shared that “funding to LIHEAP could be cut by as much as $6.7 million in 2013 year due to the sequester. These cuts would total about $1.6 billion in cuts to the program since 2010.” Boston area community action agency, Action of Boston Community Development’s Energy Services Director Kathy Tobin, reported that the local situation on the ground was especially exposed because Tobin reported to the Free Press that “estimated 50,000 households have already used all of their heating aid,” voicing her additional concern that because “we receive hundreds of calls and we have no funds to give and we are only at the end of February. Winter can last at least until May.’ We are estimating almost everyone will use up all of their aid before the winter is over…(and) are urging the state to supply more because this winter has been significantly colder than last year…(and) things look very bleak.”
Another reason for the urgency of the request, underscored by the director of another prominent local community action agency executive director, Joe Diamond, of the Massachusetts Association for Community Activism, pointed to the rapid rise in the cost of heating oil throughout the state, explaining that “the price of heating oil has gone up remarkably. And we see that, per home, it’s about 300 gallons (per tank) so it’s a couple thousand dollars that each home spends on heating and so most people receiving aid have used it already. Most went through it before January. Heating aid is a federal program, but since its low right now, we’re asking the state to supplement. Last year they gave $126 million, this year $141 (million). Before that we’d been getting about $200 million. We’re still in winter and it doesn’t show any signs of abating.” A particularly dangerous predicament for households throughout the state who “would have to be very conservative in how they heat their home,” Diamond added that the threat loomed large that “if people get desperate enough they might turn to dangerous methods like turning their stoves on or using face heaters. People sometimes go without heat for the whole winter and that’s no good either.
In Vermont, Governor Peter Shumlin made an emergency announcement via the Vermont Public Radio network that the state would run out of funds by the end of the month, warning residents around the state that “it’s not going to be easy. This is a really tough budget. But I know that there’s not a Vermonter out there that wants to see us have Vermonters go through the month of March cold and without a furnace that’s running. Clearly we’re not going to be getting more federal dollars.” With over 4500 families around the state already helped in 2013 alone through the State’s crisis fund, state LIHEAP director Richard Moffi cautioned that as a result of the state running out of funds, “it’s going to be a real big help for folks getting through the next few weeks, especially as the weather goes from really nice to kind of bitter.” Rallying to help his state’s residents avoid having to shoulder the brunt of the pain from the funding shortage, Governor Shumlin and his colleagues in the legislature were hustling to raise $900,000 for the aforementioned crisis fund to help residents get through the rest of the freezing prolonged winter season, telling Vermont Business Magazine that while he was proud of the fact his state was “running a great program,” he acknowledged still that “it could be more efficient, and clearly we are not going to get more federal dollars.”
In another, long-term step toward reducing resident dependence on LIHEAP by taking the lead in the northeast among states working most aggressively to expand weatherization efforts throughout the state’s program-dependant households, The Vermont Digger reported that the state House of Representatives had passed legislation that would “help Vermonters insulate their homes, save money on their heating bills and cut down on their carbon emissions.” Speaker of the House Shap Smith explained that “this bill directs weatherization to the lowest-income homes that are the least energy efficient. Over time, this will allow us to distribute LIHEAP fuel aid more efficiently. In our cold state we must keep Vermonters warm, spend less, and improve energy efficiency. This bill moves us in that direction.” Aiming for 80,000 newly weatherized homes by 2020, another State Rep., Margaret Cheney – Vice Chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee – reasoned the move was necessarily in response to the cold, hard fact that presently “Vermonters are now spending twice what they were ten years ago to heat their homes and businesses, and that spending has contributed nothing to the local economy.”
Down in the Granite State of Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Corbett raced to counter the coming cuts by making the strategic decision to extend the LIHEAP application period from March 29th to April 26th, in response partially to the Governor’s office’s report that the state had received 86,551 applications for crisis grants already. Explaining why his administration felt there wasn’t any other move but to do so with the deadline, Gov. Corbett explained that “each year we work to set our budget for the LIHEAP program in anticipation of the upcoming heating season. At the beginning of each season there are many unknowns, including the severity of the weather and fuel prices, but through running an efficient program and via prudent planning, we are now able to extend the program by nearly a month.”
Throughout the Midwest and South, the spirit was much the same, with Kentucky Attorney General, Jack Conway, announcing at the top of March the welcome news to nervous LIHEAP agencies and dependant households around the state that the state, as a result of what Conway’s office described as “a March 2012 settlement between the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and Constellation Energy Commodities Group over Constellation’s alleged manipulation of the wholesale energy market,” that an additional $49,700 in aid would be allotted from the settlement in additional LIHEAP funding. A true and timely relief for Community Action Agencies throughout the state, Community Action Kentucky’s Energy Program Director Mike Moynahan, underscored how vital a difference the additional monies would make on the ground with his comment that “these funds could NOT have come at a more opportune time. The five agencies in Eastern Kentucky have exhausted their initial allotment for LIHEAP so this influx will enable more families to receive assistance during the rest of the winter.” In working to help his state bridge the gap between rising demand and lower LIHEAP funding levels as a consequence of the Washington sequestration battle, AG Conway communicated on behalf of his colleagues at the state level that “I am pleased that we were able to secure additional funds for Kentucky families struggling to heat their homes. This money was put into use immediately to assist Kentucky households facing imminent termination of their electric services.
In an effort to work with the additional hardship LIHEAP-dependant households throughout Illinois were facing in the face of the Sequester and extended winter weather, a leading utility provider – Ameren Illinois – announced they were launching a flexible repayment plan for overdue utility bills, starting with a modest 10% of the outstanding balance due at the end of March, whereafter Customer Service assistant manager Marianne Luna explained to local television station, WQUAD Channel 8, that “eligible customers can pay 10 percent of their outstanding balance and then the remaining amount in monthly installments.”
Out West, the Las Vegas Sun shared the troubling news that throughout Nevada, LIHEAP recipient families were facing similar shortages in their LIHEAP aid disbursement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the state’s senior US Senator, confirmed that indeed “there are things that are happening in Nevada because of the sequester that I would like to have taken out of this bill. They’re not good things that are happening, either.” Quoting Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the stark reality of impossible choices faced by the state’s LIHEAP officials was illustrated with Kogan’s point that “when choosing between Head Start or WIC or LIHEAP (a program to assist low-income families with home heating and cooling costs), you can’t say which you can defer for a year. They’re more just steady, ongoing needs that you can’t short.”
In Washington State, LIHEAP representatives were focused on longer-term solutions aimed at reducing the need for households to require dependence on the program’s helping hand entirely, focusing on weatherization efforts that the state’s LIHEAP Weatherization Program Manager Donna Regan explained centered around a waver request wherein “the goal of the…request is to help low-income households reduce their long-term home energy costs. It especially helps those with the lowest incomes, who spend a high proportion of their household income for home energy.” The Nisqually Valley News added that because “Federal regulations required that 85 percent of this money must be used to help pay heating bills,” only 15% could presently be used to weatherize homes. The state was pushing as aggressively as it was for the waver, the paper explained, because if allowed an additional 10% of funding to appropriate toward expanded weatherization efforts, “Commerce estimated the state may weatherize up to 745 additional homes as a result.”