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Households getting heat for holidays as fuel prices rise

| Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2005

MILWAUKEE -- When Sandy Turk learned her 81-year-old mother set her thermostat at a chilly 65 degrees to save money this winter, she thought of the perfect gift -- though it's about as much fun as a lump of coal in the stocking.

Turk, 57, bought three $50 gift certificates to help pay her mother's natural gas bill.

"It's up to 68 now. It's very pleasant," said her mother, Phyllis Perry, who lives alone on Social Security payments at the Prairie du Sac home her husband built in central Wisconsin.

Perry said she's careful to turn the thermostat down to 64 and close the drapes and blinds when she goes to sleep to keep the costly heat in. "You have to watch your pennies," she said.

Americans are doing everything they can to save money and keep one another warm this winter, when natural gas prices are expected to rise 38 percent, or $281 per household on average, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. American Electric Power Co., the nation's largest power generator, said Tuesday that it is increasing its earnings forecast for 2005, citing higher wholesale sales of power and cold December temperatures.

Utilities across the Northern states are expecting a rise in the purchase of energy gift certificates as givers get downright practical about the holidays.

"We anticipate that with the higher energy prices this heating season, we may see the most participants ever," said spokeswoman Karmen Wilhelm of Madison-based Alliant Energy Corp., which began its energy gift certificate program in 2001.

So far this year, Alliant has sold 280 certificates totaling $19,760, compared to about 500 certificates a year for the last five years. The company serves about 400,000 natural gas customers in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.

"They're a great little stocking stuffer, that's for sure," said Mike Donovan, spokesman for Orange and Rockland Utilities Inc., which has 123,000 gas customers in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

"Home heating costs for gas customers are up about 40 percent. That prompts the interest. People in New York are very conscious about that."

But heating help is not just for the hard-to-shop-for.

Social agencies say the need for heating for the poor has skyrocketed along with the price of fuel.

In Wisconsin, the number of people who applied for federal lump sum aid of around $300 under the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, jumped from 98,989 in fiscal 2000 to 162,379 in fiscal 2005, said administrator Tim Bruer.

"What we're seeing is an increase in elderly and working poor that are coming in today, who because of their pride in the past haven't come forward, but who have no place to turn now," Bruer said.

But funding for the program has not kept pace with inflation or with increased demand.

Federal disbursements from the fund last year were virtually unchanged around $1.9 billion since its start in 1981, even though the cost of living has doubled over the same period and eligible households have risen from 20 million to 35 million.

Nationally, about 5 million will receive assistance this winter, down from 7.1 million in 1981 despite the burgeoning need, lobbyists say.

"The benefit has not increased. The buying power is about half of what it used to be," said David Fox, spokesman for the lobby group Campaign for Home Energy Assistance. "For low-income households, those cost increases are going to be devastating. These are already people living on the edge."

Congress now is haggling over a proposed $3.2 billion in funding for the program for this winter, a figure that Energy Secretary Sam Bodman told reporters Dec. 8 the White House would support.

But debate is stalled as Republican lawmakers attempt to fund a $56 billion package of tax cuts cut for the next five years, said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis.

"The odds are if anything at all is added, it will be one of the table scraps that goes to the poor," Obey said. "Everything is being sacrificed to those tax cuts."

While utilities also have increased donations and solicitations for funds to help the poor, do-it-yourselfers are taking matters into their own hands.

Hardware stores like Home Depot say they are seeing higher sales of energy-saving devices like low-flow shower heads, weather-stripping, programmable thermostats and water heater blankets.

"We expect that demand to continue, especially through the New Year," said Home Depot spokesman Yancey Casey. "Especially with President Bush's energy plan which gives a tax credit for folks looking to make energy efficient refurbishments to their homes."

The federal energy bill Bush signed in August gives major tax breaks for fuel-saving home improvements starting in the new year.

Several years ago, after her husband died, Phyllis Perry bought new efficient windows and replaced her oil furnace with a natural gas one to squeeze out even more savings.

But her favorite place to sit is still curled up on her couch beneath an afghan, surrounded by her crocheting.

"It's really not too bad. And if I know someone is coming, I will turn it up a little," she said.

"When you're on a fixed income, you have to watch where all those little dimes and nickels go," said Perry's daughter, Turk. "I thought if she didn't have to worry about that, it would bring me a little comfort knowing that she was at least staying warm."

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