Demand for fuel assistance up 20 percent (Vermont Public Radio)

By Bob Kinzel

Montpelier, Vt. - Officials say demand for the state's fuel assistance program - known as "LIHEAP" - has increased more than 20% this year because of rising energy costs.

There's a lot of concern that many families will face difficult financial decisions if eligibility levels for the programs aren't raised this fall.

VPRs Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) Here's the problem facing the state's low income heating assistance program. Because the price of heating oil is 30% higher than last winter, there's been a 23% increase in applications for the program and more requests are still being tabulated.

But the amount of federal and state money available for the program has been reduced.

Congressman Peter Welch says Vermont is facing a short term emergency and that's why he wants Congress to double the budget for LIHEAP:

(Welch) "This is something that's really affecting a lot of folks families where both people are working they thought they had a good job and could pay their bills and get to and from work but they're really wondering how they're going to manage to pay their home heating bill and I just have never in all my time in Vermont seen such anxiety on the faces of people so this is really urgent."

To be eligible for LIHEAP, an applicant must have an income at or below 125% of the federal poverty level. For a family of four that's a net after tax income of roughly 26 thousand five hundred dollars.

Hal Cohen is the director of the Central Vermont Community Action Council. He says eligibility levels need to be increased:

(Cohen) "The big thing that's going on is many Vermonters are right on the edge so what's happening is the folks let's say from 150% to 200% of poverty who aren't eligible for any of the LIHEP funds we're seeing many many more of those and then we're seeing folks who are above 200% of poverty who aren't able to make it."

Cohen says he's concerned that many families this winter will face the choice of fuel or food:

(Cohen) "Where we're seeing a change you have to heat your house there's almost no choice so people are then looking for places that are flexible in their budget and one of those places is food we've seen over the last year a 93% increase in the number of people coming into our food shelf. So that's telling us that people are in a lot of trouble."

Dolly Fleming is the director of the Community of Vermont Elders. She says the state needs to make a firm commitment to support the LIHEAP program:

(Fleming) "How much we can afford is a legitimate question...but I think we first need to start with the premise and the principle and the promise that we cannot afford and will not tolerate older Vermonters or low income Vermonters going cold here in Vermont not on our watch."

State officials say anyone thinking about applying for LIHEAP should do so as soon as possible in order to receive the maximum grant.