Arizona Republic, July 25, 2008: Help from the heat

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Jul. 25, 2008 12:00 AM

The Arizona Republic

The economy is wobbly, electric rates are higher than ever and the heat just keeps coming. No wonder some Arizonans can’t keep up with their electric bills. They should be able to get a hand from a national emergency energy-assistance program. Especially because there’s still money available this fiscal year.

But the dollars aren’t necessarily available to needy people here. The funding formula is tilted toward the heating needs of Americans in cold climates.

Through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, the Department of Health and Human Services has distributed $2.47 billion this fiscal year.

Arizona has received a tiny piece of a corner of a crumb of that amount: $8.7 million, or 0.4 percent.

The pot still has $120 million that HHS must give out before fiscal 2008 ends on Sept. 30.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., sent a letter Monday to the U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services asking for some of those dollars to be directed here to help low-income Arizona residents.

Kyl pointed out that the average temperature in the Valley from June 15 to June 24 was 7.2 degrees higher than that period in previous years. We’ve had 15 days of 110-plus degrees in the past month.

Customers are hurting. Arizona Public Service, Kyl said, saw a 36 percent rise in the number of households having trouble paying their electric bill in the Phoenix area. There’s been an increase of 11,000 in the number of families disconnected compared to a year ago.

On the Democratic side of the aisle, Rep. Ed Pastor urged reform of the LIHEAP system in an Arizona Republic op-ed piece in June. Phoenix City Councilman Greg Stanton co-authored the piece.

Heat is deadlier. It causes more deaths in the United States than all other weather-related events combined. A notoriously extreme heat wave in France in 2003 killed 15,000 people.

Statistics show that more deaths in the United States are related to heat than cold, Pastor and Stanton point out. Yet federal assistance is weighed toward the heating needs of the Northeast and Midwest rather than the cooling requirements of more southern states. Arizonans pay energy bills that are 18 percent higher than the national average but we rank 44th in LIHEAP funding.

What kind of people get help from the federal emergency fund? Here are some of the people that Salt River Project referred because they couldn’t handle summer air-conditioning bills.

• A couple in their 50s in Mesa. The husband had been the main bread winner but is now on disability. His wife works part time.

• A Mesa household. The wife works a couple of jobs to try to make ends meet. Her husband is bedridden after multiple surgeries last year.

• A Phoenix family. Their income was severely reduced when the husband left his wife and two children. She works seasonally for a school district and has no summer income.

These are hard-working Arizonans fallen on difficult times, not freeloaders. They were fortunate to succeed in getting help from LIHEAP.

With money available now, it would be outrageous if other Arizonans in similar situations were left without assistance.

In the longer term, the funding formula must be updated to take account of the threat of heat. As energy costs rise, the pool of money may need enlarging.

Only 6 percent of Arizonans who qualify actually get federal emergency assistance. That compares with 39 percent in Michigan, 20 percent in Massachusetts and 26 percent in Minnesota.

That’s unfair and unconscionable.

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