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Fewer families to get more heating aid from Pennsylvania LIHEAP

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Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010

Cash grants to help low-income families pay winter heating bills will increase this year though fewer people likely will be helped because eligibility requirements were stiffened.

The grants the state administers from the federally funded LIHEAP program will rise $100 to an average of $326 this winter, Gov. Ed Rendell said Tuesday. Also, the state pushed back the expiration of this year's program from March 15 to April 2.

"These changes will bring needed relief for the many families who continue to struggle to make ends meet," said Rendell, who credited the changes to the state's efficiency in operating the program.

Yet advocates for low-income families and representatives of the utility industry say the state's management of LIHEAP this year has been haphazard and has needlessly cut off many families that were eligible for assistance last year.

One problem, they say, is that LIHEAP's crisis program and cash program did not open at the same time, as they have in the past. The crisis program started Monday and helps utility customers who have lost service or face other heating emergencies; the cash program, which began in November, helps customers pay monthly bills.

"It's still hard to tell how much of a problem this has been. But it is a big concern. If people are cut off, which is what we want to avoid, it can become an undue burden on other customers," said Donna M.J. Clark, vice president and general counsel of the Energy Association of Pennsylvania, a trade group representing the state's major energy utilities.

This winter, the state made it tougher for families to qualify for LIHEAP, reducing the maximum annual income allowed for a family of four to $33,075 -- more than $11,000 less than last year's limit.

"It is sad. So many people who were eligible last year are not this year. If you are behind on your bill, you cannot get help," said Cindy Datig, CEO of the Dollar Energy Fund, a South Side-based fund supported by utilities' and customers' donations.

Last month, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission said 17,037 Pennsylvania households started winter with their heat cut off -- an 18.5 percent increase over last year. The increase largely occurred in Philadelphia, according to the commission.

Pittsburgh-area utility companies are seeing a sharp drop in customers receiving assistance.

Last month, 5,185 Equitable Gas customers were getting LIHEAP cash grants, less than half as many as in December 2008.

Additional Information:

To get help

For more information about LIHEAP assistance, call the Allegheny County Department of Human Services at 800-851-3838.



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