Vermont delegation requests heat aid

By:  Tim Johnson
Burlington Free Press

Vermont's congressional delegation is calling for an emergency infusion of federal funding for home heating assistance, and it's pushing the White House to deliver it.

A letter to President Barack Obama co-signed by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and more than 30 other senators, urges the release of $590 million in contingency funding that is part of a $5.1 billion Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program appropriation. A similar letter signed by Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and about 40 other representatives will be sent to Obama today.

The senators' letter states that more than 8 million households nationally received LIHEAP assistance last year and that applications are up 20 percent this year.

In Vermont, about 27,000 families are projected to receive seasonal fuel assistance funded by LIHEAP, an all-time high, said Richard Moffi, fuel assistance program chief with the state Department of Children and Family Services.

Vermont's current LIHEAP block grant is about $25.6 million, and its share of the contingency funding could amount to about $10 million more. The added money would be used to increase the average level of seasonal assistance and to supplement the Crisis Fuel program, which is administered by community action agencies and which has a higher income limit.

The statewide caseload is up more than 20 percent from two years ago, and applications are coming in at a rate of about 115 a day, Moffi said. The average benefit this season is about $1,130, which would rise with the contingency funding. Last year's average was about $1,700.

The LIHEAP-funded Crisis Fuel program operated through the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity has made 1,582 grants to households this year, up 13 percent from last year.

While demand is up, price is down. In November, the average price for No. 2 fuel oil was $2.59 per gallon, down about 18.5 percent from the previous year's average of $3.18.

"Even at the record appropriations levels passed by Congress the last two years, demand for the LIHEAP program continues to exceed funding," the senators' letter said. "Accordingly, states will be able to spend contingency funding immediately."

Release of the contingency funding is at the president's discretion if he believes there is an emergency -- caused by a sudden rise in fuel prices or severe weather.