Officials fear tightening of heating aid
WASHINGTON — Some Vermont officials are worried that the temporary funding that reopened the federal government will leave low-income families in the state without enough help paying their heating bills this winter.
The stopgap funding measure passed Oct. 16, known as a continuing resolution, funds many federal departments and agencies through Jan. 15. Included is money for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, commonly referred to as LIHEAP.
The program distributed $3.47 billion across the country during the 2013 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, with roughly $18.4 million directed to Vermont. But while the continuing resolution contains a level of nationwide funding similar to 2013’s, this year Vermont expects to receive about $17 million, according to a spokesman for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
The federal Office of Management and Budget has required the U.S. Health and Human Services Department to hold back a portion of this year’s total allocation for LIHEAP due to sequestration — automatic, across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to take place in January, said Leahy’s press secretary, David Carle.
The uncertainty arising from the 3½-month length of the continuing resolution is another reason Vermont’s projected LIHEAP funding is down from last year, he added. According to Carle, HHS could deliver further small allocations later in the year if sequestration is averted or other money is freed up.
Due to the delay caused by the partial federal government shutdown, HHS will not determine the precise LIHEAP allocations for Vermont and other states for another couple of weeks, according to Laura Goulding, a department spokeswoman.
“People from many states are waiting for the funding, and the process of figuring out the allocation for each state is now a high priority for us,” Goulding said.
Vermont’s effort to assist low-income households with heating costs relies on federal money as well as direct state funding, which will provide an additional $6 million to $8.1 million.
That could make the total estimated level of home heating aid as low as $23 million, compared with about $28.1 million the previous year, according to Richard Moffi, chief of the Vermont Fuel Assistance Program.
According to the Vermont program’s website, families with gross household incomes equal to or less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible to apply for fuel assistance. Each eligible household in Vermont should expect an average heating assistance of $717 this winter, compared with last year’s $898, Moffi said.
In Vermont, about 27,750 families received assistance paying their home heating bills last winter, a number representing about 90 percent of all that applied, according to Moffi. He said he expects the number of families receiving aid to go up this winter to between 28,300 and 28,400.
Moffi said funding for LIHEAP is “never, quote-unquote, ‘enough,’” since the program is set up to help recipients pay only a portion of their heating bills.
“The number of families is going up, the (funding) is going down, and that adds to the pressure,” Moffi said.
In Vermont, 84 percent of all households heat with oil, propane or kerosene.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration — a division of the U.S. Energy Department — expects the cost of oil to drop 5 percent from 2013 prices, when the figure had soared 28 percent since 2010. The agency also predicts that the winter will be 3 percent colder in the Northeast than the last one.
“We’re hoping it’s not going to be as cold as they say it’s going to be,” Moffi said. “But all I can do on those two fronts is to hope right now.”
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