Need rises for heating help

Demand puts strain on local, state programs

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

Despite an unseasonably warm November so far, Vermonters are beginning to get nervous about winter heating bills – and so are the regional organizations that are in place to help them. But, there are measures people can take to get help for the winter season.

Officials with the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity said people are already facing problems with their heating bills. The CVOEO is a state agency designed to help Vermonters take advantage of federal and state aid.

“We are already seeing people who have never applied for assistance before coming in here in panic mode,” said Vicki Fletcher, Crisis Fuel and Warmth coordinator for CVOEO. “And it’s only November.”

In Williston, there are several avenues open to residents through federal and state programs, as well as various religious organizations.

Some local churches offer assistance, whether or not they are members of the congregation. The Williston Federated Church, for example, does not have a heating assistance program, but may offer help to individuals on a case-by-case basis, church personnel said.

The Maranatha Christian Church on South Brownell Road does not have a specific fuel assistance program either, but they do sometimes provide financial help to people in need, according to church officials.

Leo Garcia, the accountant for Maranatha, said the church takes collections a few times a year for their “Acts 4” program. The name refers to the Book of Acts, Chapter 4, in the Christian bible. The chapter describes how apostles Peter and John encourage their followers to share their money and property to help those in need.

“We have helped people that have called us up that are not in the body of Christ,” Garcia said, referring to churchgoers. “It’s always a decision made on an individual basis.”

The Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church on Williston Road assists people through the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington. The diocese has an Emergency Aid Program, to which parishioners may apply. Non-parishioners may also apply through the church, but aid is capped at $50, and only if funds are available, according to the diocese’s Web site.

The town of Williston also has a small amount of money, about $2,000, budgeted for resident assistance. Town officials encourage residents to go to regional offices first, however. There are three levels of state heating assistance available to Williston residents: Seasonal Fuel Assistance; Crisis Fuel Assistance; and the privately funded Warmth program. Another program, ShareHeat, is available to customers of CVPS, which does not serve Williston.

Funding issues

The federal government’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) gives funding to states for fuel assistance. Last year, Vermont received about $11 million in funding. Lawmakers in Washington have not yet approved changes in fuel assistance budgets, so LIHEAP funding for the fiscal year 2006 has yet to be established.

This year, the cost of fuel has risen dramatically, and money for the programs will probably be tight, according to CVOEO Executive Director Tim Searles. Searles said that due to Congressional indecision, he expects the federal funding to remain at the same level as last year. Increased demand for help will also put a strain on the programs, he said.

“The state supplemental program is already running about 3,000 applications ahead of last year,” he said. “In terms of Warmth and ShareHeat, we’re definitely seeing more people in our waiting rooms and more people applying.”

Searles said the price of kerosene and No. 2 heating oil this year costs a full dollar more per gallon than last year. And since the crisis fuel program pays for at least 100 gallons of fuel, the agency must spend $100-$150 more per household assisted than last year.

“That’s going to put us over very quickly,” Searles said.

The Vermont State Emergency Board, chaired by Gov. Jim Douglas, approved shifting $7 million over to the Seasonal Fuel Assistance program earlier this month. The money is going to be taken from the corrections budget and the Home Weatherization Assistance Trust Fund, according to new reports.

“Not one nickel of that has gone to our crisis program,” Searles said. “They have done nothing to eliminate the emergency need.”

However, an administration official said that problem could be solved soon.

“(Gov. Douglas) has every intention of diverting all additional federal contingency funds received directly into the Crisis Fuel Assistance programs,” said Jason Gibbs, Gov. Douglas’ spokesman. “ We are expecting the federal money to become available in the coming weeks. The bottom line is that low-income Vermonters who need emergency heating assistance will be able to receive it.”

Types of help

Seasonal assistance takes longer to process and people must apply for it in advance. Usually people who have received aid the previous year will automatically receive an application the next year.

Eligible people who apply for seasonal assistance before Nov. 30 will receive full benefits – the amount of which varies depending on a person’s situation – by Jan. 15. Those who apply after Nov. 30 will still receive benefits but they will be less than 100 percent of the help available.

However, people who are experiencing a heating crisis before their seasonal benefits kick in can apply for crisis fuel assistance.

The crisis assistance program, which begins on the last Monday in November (this year it falls on Nov. 28), is administered by Chittenden Community Action in Burlington, and is there to help families with a heating crisis. A “crisis” is defined as when a home’s heating system is about to be shut off due to lack of payment, or when a home’s fuel tank is less than 1/4 full.

The program pays for 100 gallons of fuel, or pays the current charges on the heating bill. All money is paid directly to the fuel company. If paying the current charges is not enough to prevent a shut-off, money from the Warmth program kicks in.

Unlike the federally funded seasonal and crisis fuel assistance programs, Warmth is funded entirely by private donations from businesses and individuals.

Warmth money can be used up to three times in a season, and provides $75 toward fuel delivery or toward overdue charges.

The Warmth program and crisis program have a higher income cap (185 percent and 150 percent of the federal poverty level respectively) than the seasonal assistance program (125 percent).

Fletcher said some people are discouraged from applying for assistance because they don’t understand the income-level guidelines. But, she said, the best way for a person to find out if they are eligible is just to apply.

“Once we get them into our office, usually 15 minutes and the crisis is solved,” she said.

Other options

Some Vermonters are turning to alternative methods of heating as the cold months approach. Rose Comyns, a salesperson at Stove and Flag Works in Williston, said sales are brisk.

“Definitely, we’ve had more pellet sales this year,” she said, “And wood stove sales are going very well, also.”

Donna Emerson, a sales representative at Heating Alternatives on Williston Road, echoed Comyns’ comments. Heating Alternatives sells wood and gas stoves, but not pellet stoves.

“We definitely have seen an increase in wood stove sales,” Emerson said. “I have worked here for four years and this is definitely the year for wood.”