Fuel aid office sees record first week

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

A record number of people flooded to Burlington last week looking for emergency help with their home heating bills.

Tim Searles, executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, said at least 200-250 people came through the office seeking help, with 59 people on the first day alone. Searles said the previous record was around 45.

Monday, Nov. 28 marked the start of the first week the agency was offering crisis fuel assistance for those who are out of – or in imminent danger of running out of – heating fuel.

“It was the busiest opening week we’ve ever had for crisis fuel,” Searles said.

Households with incomes of 150 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for crisis fuel assistance. In Williston, 40 households have incomes that are between 150 and 180 percent of the federal poverty level, according to Rep. Jim McCullough, D-Williston.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, poverty-level annual income for a four-person household is $19,350; so 150 percent of the poverty level would be $29,025.

Searles said a disturbing trend was the fact that many new faces were coming in for help.

“We’re seeing more households with full-time wage earners than ever before,” he said. “And we’re seeing people we’ve never seen before.”

The Crisis Fuel Assistance program is a part of the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The CVOEO received about $1 million for the program, which is roughly the same amount as it received last year, Searles said. He said that the money would likely not last past January, but the governor’s office and the Agency of Human Services has promised to come through with more money for the program.

“We do have their assurances that we will not be underfunded,” Searles said.

In November, Gov. Jim Douglas approved up to $10 million in state assistance to augment federal LIHEAP funding, but none of that money went toward the crisis fuel assistance program. However, the governor’s office has teamed up with AARP Vermont, which is funding a home weatherization assistance program, and hinted that other measures could be taken.

“We're pursuing some options that we hope will allow some additional resources to flow to the crisis programs,” Jason Gibbs, Gov. Douglas’ spokesman, said in an e-mail. “We’re not prepared to detail exactly what they might be at this time.”

Last week AARP Vermont announced it was contributing $50,000 for what they are calling “Project Warm Home.” The money will be distributed through the state’s community action offices in the form of $25 gift cards to The Home Depot.

The cards will be available to homeowners who don’t quite qualify for heating assistance or to people on the state waiting list for home weatherization services. The cards can be used to purchase home weatherization supplies such as caulking, weather stripping and insulation products.

It was unclear as to whether the use of the cards for such items would be regulated, but Searles said a better way to save on home energy bills would be to buy energy efficient light bulbs, not window coverings.

The CVOEO office had not received any of the cards as of Dec. 5, but expected to have them available in the next week or so.

For Williston residents who qualify for the program, the cards will be available through Chittenden Community Action in Burlington. Residents who are unsure if they qualify are encouraged to visit the office at 191 North St., Burlington., or call (800) 287-7971.