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More Western Pennsylvanians asking for help with heating bills

Stephen Huba
| Friday, Jan. 5, 2018, 5:33 p.m.
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The winter of 2017-18 is already shaping up to be a record-setter for natural gas use and demand for heating bill assistance that undoubtedly will follow.

With temperatures dropping into the single digits across Pennsylvania, utility companies, charities and government agencies are expecting the requests for assistance to increase in coming months.

“We've seen a 30 percent increase in the number of applications and an almost 32 percent increase in the number of grants over this time last year,” said Jody Robertson, spokeswoman for the Dollar Energy Fund .

The Pittsburgh-based nonprofit is the second-largest program for people who struggle to pay their heating bills during the winter. The largest is the federally funded Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP .

“We consider ourselves a program of last resort. We encourage people to go to LIHEAP first,” Robertson said.

Since Oct. 1, the Dollar Energy Fund has distributed $753,516 in grants to 2,052 households in Allegheny County for utility bill assistance (gas, water and electric) and $73,368 in grants to 211 households in Westmoreland County, she said.

The average grant amount was $352, she said.

The Allegheny County assistance so far is almost half the total for the state — $1.4 million in grants to 4,211 households, she said.

Given the recent cold snap, requests for assistance will increase in February, March and April.

“We expect it to be pretty intense once people start getting those winter heating bills,” Robertson said. “It usually takes a month or two for them to get the shutoff notice; that's when we step in to have money applied to their account to prevent shutoff.”

The Dollar Energy Fund gets the bulk of its funding from utility customers who donate through their bills and whose donations are matched by the utility companies.

Although President Trump's budget proposal in March threatened to eliminate LIHEAP, the amount currently allocated to Pennsylvania — $167 million — is slightly higher than last winter's allocation, said Lee Gierczynski, spokesman for Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania.

Eligibility for LIHEAP currently is set at 150 percent of the federal poverty income guidelines, which, for an individual, is $18,090 and, for a family of four, is $36,900.

“We want to make sure our most vulnerable customers know that there are resources out there that can help them with their heating bills. We encourage all our customers to let those people know about LIHEAP and apply for a grant as soon as possible,” Gierczynski said.

In 2016-17, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services received 44,565 applications for LIHEAP assistance from Allegheny County and 14,308 applications from Westmoreland County, DHS spokesman Colin Day said.

Since Nov. 1, the start of the LIHEAP grant season, the state has received 26,267 applications from Allegheny County and 9,848 applications from Westmoreland County, Day said.

The one-time grants range from $200 to $1,000.

Based on the number of households that received funding last winter, the state is projecting that 500,000 households will be helped this winter, Gierczynski said.

“There is a limited pot of money out there, so we always encourage customers to apply early if funds would run out,” he said.

The state also has a LIHEAP crisis program for customers who are in imminent danger of losing their heat. Charities such as the Salvation Army offer utility bill assistance, while most utility companies offer a budget payment plan that spreads the costs out over 12 months.

On Friday, the federal government reported that estimated natural gas demand on Jan. 1 reached 150.7 billion cubic feet, surpassing the previous single-day record set in 2014. Lower-than-normal temperatures led to increased demand for heating, much of which is provided by natural gas, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, shuba@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

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