Writing and Reporting by Jake Brown
“For some, admitting a need for help with finances isn’t easy. Admitting there are not sufficient household funds to pay for basic expenses, such as winter heating costs, takes humility,” the Newton Daily News shared of the hard truth for many of the newest faces reaching out for LIHEAP’s helping hand in recent times, a challenge echoed by John Burnquist, Program Planner for the Iowa LIHEAP Director’s Office, who confirmed in an exclusive conversation this month that “we always see new faces every year. I was told at one time there was probably a 25% turnover, we haven’t analyzed that data lately, but in terms of clients each year, there’s always new people that seem to come in every year.”
Welcomed with open arms by caring community action crusaders like Rose Marie Scott, the Director of Family Services for IMPACT Community Action Partnership, which serves Boone, Marion, Warren, Polk and Jasper Counties, she underscored that this continual roadblock to serving the maximum number of families as one that came not from the usual lack of available funding, but from “one of obstacles to the public obtaining funds (where)…there are about 2,000 households in Jasper County receiving LIHEAP assistance, and there are probably more who qualify. It takes a lot to ask for help.”
Championed by Mr. Burnquist as “the front line of signing people up,” the City of Des Moines-Community Action’s Director, Marci Rafdal, proudly pointed in the past year to “about 5700 hundred families…we have assisted…through the LIHEAP season. If families are facing disconnection at any time during the year, we are certainly asking for them to come to our office. We will talk to them about what we may be able to do to help them. If we cannot help them, we will refer them to other agencies in the community.”
Though a winter moratorium protects vulnerable Iowans from the immediate threat of shutoff itself during the winter’s coldest months, its only a temporary relief as the Des Moines Register warned last spring when the sounded the alarm on their front page that “Iowans face losing gas and electricity in the weeks ahead. A state moratorium that protects consumers from utility disconnections ended April 1,” placing at risk “about 233,000 Iowans owed $40.6 million in delinquent utility bills in February, according to the most recent data from the Iowa Utilities Board. The average overdue bill is around $300…and families might make dangerous decisions, such as foregoing important medications or deciding to use candles to light their homes or kerosene heaters to warm them.”
“It’s the old question of ‘Heat or Eat’,” Mr. Burnquist lamented, “those households often give up other things just in order to pay their heating bills.” Highlighting the case of Tim Souza as one such casualty who “struggling with health problems…saw his medication costs explode this year from less than $50 a month to $700,” falling “behind on his gas bills and was notified he would lose heat” before he “received last-minute assistance from another of the heroic CAAs, the Red Rock Community Action agency,” according to the Des Moines Register. Confessing that “I wouldn’t be able to cook. I wouldn’t have hot water, and it would get pretty cold at night,” Mr. Souza’s struggle mirrored those of “people that just can’t get along without it, particularly the elderly and disabled on fixed incomes,” Mr. Burnquist explained.
Doing their best to stay ahead of the next season’s storm, Mr. Burnquist reveals that as soon as this spring’s enrollment period ends, while “we always hope for status quo, we start planning after the program’s over in May and June, and have our public hearings in July and get ready and agencies begin their programs in August and then September, even though our start up date is October 1st. We do early enrollments for elderly and disabled households, we give them priority in October so notifications are sent to them in September usually.”
Undertaking an aggressive campaign to spread the word as wide as possible with the ambition of targeting “some who have never been on it before” like the aforementioned beneficiaries, as well as more traditional demographics Mr. Burnquist highlights where “our CAA’s are required to send out several notices at the beginning of the early enrollment period for the elderly and disabled, they send out a notice for the beginning of the regular program that begins November 1st, and regulated utilities are all required to send out a notice of the availability of the program. Then TV stations pick up on it and newspapers and so forth. We generally have a lot publicity for the program and people are generally aware of it.”
Another ample partner in spreading word of energy assistance are the state’s biggest utility providers like Alliant Energy, who the Des Moines Register reported this year “recently contributed $2 million to its Hometown Care Energy Fund,” adding that “energy consumers can contribute to funds established by MidAmerican Energy…and other utilities across the state to help Iowans struggling to pay their bills.” Such utility assistance above and beyond what LIHEAP funding is able to provide is reflective, Mr. Burnquist asserts, of the “good relationship we have with our utilities, particularly our Investor-owned, that handle 70% of our applications, that’s always good. LIHEAP payments are paid to the utilities, and Regulated utilities in Iowa are required to have a customer contribution fund and solicit their customers once a year for money, and the state does not receive that money directly, but it goes to the local community action agencies to be returned to their service area.”
One arena where Iowa has stayed on the cutting edge in advancing progress toward longer-term energy independence is within the state’s focus on weatherization, where Mr. Burnquist affirms “we give 15% of our funds to weatherization, and when a household applies for energy assistance, they are also applying for weatherization at the same time, so we work hand in hand for that program. Its very helpful in terms of energy savings.” Burnquist’s office has been equally aided on the political front by such high-profile personalities as “Ret. Senator Tom Harkin and Senator Grassley, who have been supportive of maintaining funding for energy assistance,” along with state-level elected officials like Iowa state Rep. Mary Mascher, who has been an aggressive advocate for such alternatives.
Sponsoring such out-of-the-box solutions as donating excess solar energy to these needy households, The Midwestern Energy News reported that Bill 149 “would require any utility that has to periodically file an efficiency plan to include within that plan a system for giving excess solar energy to people who’ve fallen behind in their utility payments. Mascher sees it as a logical extension of utility benefits currently available to people with low incomes, such as LIHEAP, the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.”
With solar energy an important element of weatherization efforts undertaken throughout the state, Rep. Mascher reasoned that such a move makes logical sense because “our LIHEAP monies run out every year before the end of the winter season, and we have more need than money to go around. This is another way to generate more energy money – in terms of providing a safety net for those folks. For me, it’s a win-win because the energy company doesn’t have to turn off someone’s power. And the people who need it the most are able to continue to get the power they need. This would be a way to make a credit that would help those who can’t afford it. I have not heard of this. When I was talking to my solar energy guys this fall, I asked them if this had been done anywhere. They said this is a unique idea. If I overproduce, I’d like it to go to the people I want it to. I want to have a say in that, and to be able to utilize that for the people who need it the most.”