Delegation brings home LIHEAP aid (Vermont Press Bureau)

By Peter Hirschfeld

BURLINGTON — Vermont's congressional delegation took a hometown victory lap in Burlington on Thursday after helping to secure additional funds late last month for the state's fuel subsidy program. But even with the federal infusion, the Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program remains $2.1 million short, and state officials are scrambling to fill the deficit.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch regaled a small audience at the Champlain Senior Center with accounts of their Washington, D.C., success. Relentless teamwork, they said, resulted in a continuing resolution that doubled national LIHEAP funding from $2.6 billion last year to $5.1 billion this year. Vermont's share of LIHEAP funding will rise proportionally, from $17 million to about $35 million for the 200-8/2009 winter season.

"We came together in July, and the three of us pledged to Vermonters that we would push the LIHEAP issue all the way to end of the session," Leahy said. "… The three of us promised Vermont we would. And we have."

Sanders said the state ought to use the bolstered funding to raise the income thresholds presently used to determine eligibility.

"It is my hope and my strong expectation that more people are going to be covered," he said.

In fact, more people will be covered this year — applications for LIHEAP are up 26 percent, according to the latest figures, and officials project that nearly 24,000 households will receive assistance — a 10-percent increase over last winter.

But the glut of applications, and higher crude prices, mean Vermont will spend an unprecedented amount on fuel aid, effectively draining any excess capacity to expand eligibility standards.

"Our first priority is to make sure everybody on the existing program is covered and that we have enough money to cover those people," Secretary of the Administration Neale Lunderville said. "Even with the federal grant money that has come in, we have a deficit on this, meaning we're going to have to apply state money to a federal program in order to meet the benefits."

Vermont's LIHEAP program aims to cover 60 percent of annual heating costs for Vermonters living at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level. Richard Moffi, head of the state's fuel assistance program, attributed the rising cost of living generally for the record number of new LIHEAP clients.

"More people are coming forward, and more people are being found eligible," Moffi said Thursday. "Now, with the new money, we're going to be able to serve all these eligible people, and that's a pretty amazing thing."

But no plans are under way now to expand assistance to residents beyond the 125-percent threshold. Steve Dale, commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, which oversees heating aid in Vermont, said the volatile price of fuel will figure largely in what the state can offer applicants who had previously been denied.

"At the moment, there is not a specific plan to expand," Dale said. "If the price of oil runs above $4 a gallon, then every dime of that federal money is needed simply to preserve the commitment we've made to people in the past. If the price is lower, I think there will be conversations."

Sanders intimated Thursday that the state might contribute $6.3 million of its own money to the program — the same amount it gave last year. But Lunderville said Thursday that state money was used last year only to bridge a deficit in federal funding. While the Douglas administration and Legislature are sure to approve funding to cover the $2.1 million gap, it's unlikely, especially given difficult budget conditions, that Vermont would match the $6.3 million it spent in Fiscal Year 2008.

"We're very happy the federal government came through this year and decided to fully fund the program so we don't have to find significant additional state money, especially in a tough budget year like this," Lunderville said.