Heat bills could be a nightmare

By:  Tena Starr

Joe Patrissi, executive director of NEKCA, isn't looking forward to this winter. "It's going to be a nightmare," he said.

That's if federal funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) remains at 45 percent of what it was last year. The budget President Barack Obama has proposed funds the program, which helps poor people with heating costs, at less than half the level of last year.

The average fuel assistance benefit in Vermont this year, under current funding, will be $474, about enough to heat a farmhouse for six weeks, depending on the weather and the efficiency of the home.

"As my mother used to say, it's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick," said Richard Moffi, fuel assistance chief for Vermont.

He, too, is worried about what will happen with federal funding for fuel assistance so drastically cut.

NEKCA, as the Northeast Kingdom's community action agency, is charged with helping people who need heat, food, and other basic necessities. It administers only the crisis fuel program, a safety net to help those who are in danger of going entirely without heat, or have an electric disconnect notice. The state administers the seasonal fuel assistance program, where eligibility is based entirely on income.

"Here in the Kingdom we're on the verge of some potential drama," Mr. Patrissi said. "The

Northeast Kingdom has the highest unemployment rate in the state, as well as the highest percentage of people eligible for benefits."

He said that some people are spending their food money on fuel and relying heavily on food shelves in order to eat.

"They're left with the choice of, do I use the card to pay for fuel and go to the food shelf, or do

I not do that, and I get my fuel?" Mr. Patrissi said. "They're going to look to the food shelf. That is not a great choice for people to have to make in this country. It's really not acceptable as far as I'm concerned. People are trading off food for fuel."

If the seasonal benefit for fuel assistance goes down to $400 or so, even that scenario will no longer work, Mr. Patrissi said. "Are we going to be in a place where we have to consider opening up warming shelters for people? People in Congress seem to be clueless, with the exception of our Congressional delegation."

Mr. Patrissi spent Monday morning with Congressman Peter Welch at a busy food shelf in St. Johnsbury. "The line was out the door," he said. It was a few days before Thanksgiving, which accounts for some of the activity, but he considers the general need for both food and fuel frightening, and Washington's failure to address it, appalling.

To make matters worse, Vermont changed its eligibility guidelines so that more people are eligible for fuel assistance. While the intention was good - to align those who are eligible for Three Squares Vermont with those who are eligible for fuel assistance - what it means is that now there's less money to spread around among more people who need it.  Three Squares Vermont helps people pay for food.

Last year the total average fuel assistance benefit was $866, Mr. Moffi said.

And to make matters just a little worse yet, the average cost of a gallon of fuel last year was $3.30. This year, it's $3.90, Mr. Moffi said. "At $3.90 a gallon, that doesn't go very far," he said.

Senator Bernie Sanders said, in an op-ed piece, that the budget President Obama submitted to Congress in February was based on "what turned out to be seriously flawed projections that energy prices would fall. He said at the time he would reconsider if the projections were wrong. They were. Prices instead have soared.

"Some 67,000 Vermonters, or 10.8 percent of our state, lived in poverty last year," Mr. Sanders wrote. That's an increase of nearly 10,000 Vermonters from just one year earlier, according to the Census Bureau."

The state has already stepped in and borrowed money from its weatherization program. Governor Peter Shumlin has taken $2.5-million from that program and put it into fuel assistance, Mr. Moffi said.

"If he hadn't done that, the average benefit would be $363, not enough to get a minimum fuel delivery," he said. "So we've already augmented the program with state funding. We're doing whatever we can to get the benefits out the door and make it as meaningful as possible. I'm scratching the bottom of the barrel to put out every dime."

It's still possible that Congress could augment the fuel assistance budget, but so far that has not

happened, and Mr. Patrissi is skeptical that it will.

The numbers of those who need, and are eligible for, fuel assistance, have been increasing year after year. This year the jump is by 5.6 percent, Mr. Moffi said.

The biggest recent increase was last year when the eligibility requirement was changed.

"Two years ago the Legislature and the Douglas administration decided, after 30 years, to increase eligibility so more Vermonters could access the program," Mr. Moffi said. "It's a way of trying to spread the benefits out."

The formula is income sensitive so those on the higher end of eligibility get less money; those on the lower income rung get more. But this year the fear is that absolutely no one will get enough.

"We're seeing a lot more folks in both Three Squares and fuel assistance that we haven't seen before," Mr. Moffi said. People are losing jobs, folks are really struggling out there."

Last year, Vermont received $25.6-million. This year it's operating with $11.6-million, Mr. Moffi said. "And we're going to be that way until Congress determines the budget."

The number of people applying for, and receiving, fuel assistance has steadily risen while the benefit amount has gone down. In the winter of 2006-2007, 30,308 people applied, and 21,022 applications were granted. For the winter of 2010-2011, 45,077 people applied for assistance, and 35,456 received it. Last year NEKCA helped 550 household with crisis fuel assistance.

People who need help with fuel should call (800) 479-6151. It takes a little less than a month to determine if a person is eligible.

Mr. Moffi urges people to not let their tank run dry. Last year, it cost about $100,000 just for expenses involved with special deliveries and getting people's heating systems restarted after their fuel completely ran out, he said. People can apply for the seasonal fuel assistance program from July through the end of February.

"When they get down to a quarter of a tank they should come in to their community action office and request a delivery," Mr. Moffi said. "We really don't want people to run their tanks dry. When you run your tank dry you go cold. When you run the tank dry they charge a special trip charge. There may be a startup charge. Everything goes wrong. Clients get anxious. People can apply for crisis program fuel assistance starting November 28.

The seasonal benefit is available to anyone - both homeowners and renters. The benefit is paid directly to the fuel dealer. The crisis program is available to people who have an emergency. It, too, is income sensitive. But community action centers ask questions about what resources a person has that could offset the situation.

"I can't help you until you make decisions about how to use your money," Mr. Moffi said. "We take clients through a lot of eligibility tests. It's a face-to-face interview with documentation."

The average benefit about three years ago was $1,100, Mr. Patrissi said. "People could mostly pay their heat with that benefit."

He's worried about what the current average benefit will mean to people's lives. "We're looking at running out of money in January.

What's going to happen here? This is unprecedented that we don't provide for people to stay warm.

"Quite frankly, this is new territory for everybody. I'm hoping the Legislature will help although people have their hands full with Irene. The biggest hope we have is that people who do have resources will go the extra mile."

He's talking about efforts like MOO92 radio's annual food drive and Melanie Gefert's and Fran Azur's recent donation of 3,000 pounds of beef from the Vermont Highland Cattle Company.

"Those things have become really important," Mr. Patrissi said. "We are going to have to pursue diversifying our funding base.  There's nothing I can think of right now that's going to help the fuel program."

Overall, the Northeast Kingdom is in rough shape when it comes to poverty, Mr. Patrissi said.

He said that last year, according to state data, the number of people who got help with food costs jumped 12.5 percent in Essex County, 4 percent in Caledonia County and 5 percent in Orleans County.

"One in every four children in the Kingdom is food insecure, meaning they don't have enough food to eat," Mr. Patrissi said.

The Food and Research Action Center indicates that 18 percent of the Northeast Kingdom population is on Three Squares Vermont - 20 percent in Orleans County.

"That's pretty extraordinary," Mr. Patrissi said.

According to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, Essex County has the highest poverty rate in the state at 16.9 percent, in 2009. Orleans County has a poverty rate of 13.5 percent, and Caledonia County a rate of 14.9 percent.

Governor Shumlin and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick have spearheaded a call on Congress from 15 governors to urge at least level-funding for LIHEAP. In a letter signed by governors from primarily cold-weather states, the group said that time is of the essence.

"Vermonters are facing a devastating cut in heating assistance this winter unless the White House and Congress approve the funding to ensure every family can afford to stay warm," Governor Shumlin said in a press release. "No one should be forced to choose between heat, food, medications, and other vital necessities."