November 2, 2013

Federal heating aid delayed because of budget battle, shutdown

Low-income Mainers who rely on LIHEAP for heating help will have to wait for funds to come through.

By Eric Russell
Staff Writer

Low-income Mainers who rely on federal aid to get through the heating season have yet to find out when that assistance, which usually starts by the beginning of November, will actually come.

click image to enlarge

Keith Franklin of Cash Energy delivers heating oil recently to a home in Old Orchard Beach. The state is still waiting for word on what kind of federal fuel assistance Mainers can expect for the coming winter.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

MaineHousing, the quasi-state agency that oversees the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program in Maine, usually knows by early to mid-October how much money it will have, said Deborah Turcotte, the agency’s spokeswoman.

But as of Friday, MaineHousing still had not heard from the federal government how much the state will get or when the money might arrive.

“We’re still encouraging people to apply for the program, but when they call, we can’t tell them what their benefit amount might be,” Turcotte said.

In previous years, MaineHousing could start sending payments to fuel dealers on behalf of aid recipients by the first or second week of November.

The delay this year was caused mainly by budget deliberations in Washington, D.C., and the 16-day shutdown of the federal government last month.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services would say only that an announcement about funding is expected soon.

Mike Tarpinian, CEO of Opportunity Alliance, the community action agency that serves Cumberland County, said he has heard that the first checks will be delivered by Nov. 15, although federal officials could not confirm that.

“So we just have to hang on until then,” he said. “Luckily, the weather has been warm, but if we have a cold stretch, that’s when the demand will really pick up.”

Tarpinian said his agency has processed about 1,700 applications for LIHEAP funds, which is normal for this time of year. During the last season, Opportunity Alliance received a total of just under 6,000 requests.

In October, Maine 211, an emergency referral hotline, saw a 25 percent increase from a year ago in the number of people calling about heating-related issues, said Karen Turgeon, the program director.

Many of those calls came from people who receive LIHEAP funds and wondered what to do while they wait for the money to come through. Turgeon did not have exact figures on how many calls the agency received.

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King of Maine are among several lawmakers who are pushing the Department of Health and Human Services to release the heating assistance funds as soon as possible.

“This funding has been an indispensable lifeline during challenging economic times, helping to ensure that recipients do not have to choose between paying their energy bills and paying for other necessities like food or medicine,” several senators wrote in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Representatives for Collins and King said Friday that they have not received a response to the letter.

Willy Ritch, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, said his office has not heard anything about timing of LIHEAP funds. Ed Gilman, a spokesman for Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine, said his office has been told that an announcement is coming next week.

In recent years, funding for heating assistance has shrunk because of budget cuts. The National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, a policy group representing state agencies that administer the program, has been asking the Obama administration to restore funding to 2010 levels – just over $5 billion. In a letter sent Oct. 28 to Sebelius, the group said any delay is a problem.

“As temperatures approach freezing levels in some parts of the country, we are concerned that the delay in releasing program funds will cause unnecessary hardships to the households that we serve,” wrote the group’s chair, Larry Dawson.

A continuing resolution that passed Oct. 16 funded LIHEAP at the same level as last year – $3.47 billion – but it is good only until Jan. 15. If a long-term budget agreement is not reached by then, another round of automatic federal spending could be imposed and potentially cut the amount the Department of Health and Human Services gives to the program.

MaineHousing manages the LIHEAP program in Maine, and local community action programs process applications.

Eligibility is determined by income and household size. A family of two must earn less than $23,265 a year to qualify, and a family of four must earn less than $35,325. For households with elderly residents, people with disabilities or children younger than 2, the income thresholds are slightly higher.

For nearly all recipients, LIHEAP does not cover all heating costs. The average cost per year to heat a 1,500-square-foot home with oil is more than $3,000, according to recent data provided by the Governor’s Office of Energy Independence. For propane, the average annual cost is more than $4,000.

LIHEAP has served an average of about 50,000 households in Maine every year for the past decade – about 9 percent – although the average benefit has varied considerably. In 2004, the average benefit was $441. In 2009, the average peaked at $917.

In the 2010-11 heating season, Maine received $56.5 million, a number inflated by extra funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In 2011-12, it fell to $38.6 million. During the most recent heating season, the amount was cut to $34.9 million because of sequestration.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

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