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More in region seek help to pay for heat

| Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2009

Local organizations that work with struggling utility customers are bracing for more requests for help from this winter's heating assistance program than they got a year ago.

High jobless numbers, combined with low-income families trying to reconnect service and pay off last winter's bills, are generating more applications for Dollar Energy Fund grants, which became available last Thursday.

CEO Cindy Datig looked over the first two days' tallies on Tuesday. "They really knocked my socks off," she said.

Applications to the South Side-based fund built with utilities' and customers' donations have increased by 75 percent, and dollars granted are up 104 percent from a year ago. "We're spending $30,000 a day right now," she said.

Until next month, at least, the fund will be the region's only source of utility grants.

If the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program continues to be funded, as expected, at 2008's record level of $5.1 billion, the state Department of Public Welfare said it will begin to give out cash grants on Nov. 2 to help eligible, current utility customers pay their bills.

Critics blasted an earlier plan by the department, which administers LIHEAP in Pennsylvania, to start the program on Dec. 1, in part to ensure that money will be available through the winter. The Obama administration at that point had set aside just $2.41 billion for LIHEAP.

Since then, the federal budget process has earmarked LIHEAP funding to continue at the 2008 level. "But this is not the final federal budget," Stacey Witalec, welfare department spokeswoman, said yesterday. "We could get more. We could get less."

Based on the $5.1 billion figure, Pennsylvania would get $274.9 million, she said, but 15 percent — or about $41 million — would go to a weatherization program to help low-income homeowners lower bills, and administration costs would eat up about 10 percent.

Last year, Pennsylvania awarded 545,000 grants with $308 million in funding, but that included federal contingency money, a $12 million carryover from the prior year and other funds that aren't available this time.

Several other points of contention remain. For the first time, Pennsylvania plans to delay awarding crisis grants — to help customers with no heating service get their natural gas turned back on, for example — until Jan. 4 or later. Both the cash and crisis programs would end March 15.

"I know several families who were counting on getting the LIHEAP funds to get their heat turned on, to stay warm this winter," Josh Wertheim of the Millvale office of North Hills Community Outreach said. "It's very disappointing that they'll have to wait until January to get their heat on."

Cash grants, which only go to current utility customers, can run as high as $1,000. Crisis grants, for those who lack heating service, or may lose it soon, will be a maximum $400 with the state's latest changes, up from $300.

Thousands of families who got grants last year will be ineligible. Income standards then were loosened to 210 percent of federal poverty guidelines, but now they're back to 150 percent.

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