MSNBC, February 11, 2008: Colorado families get aid for heat bills

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Associated Press Writer

The Associated Press

updated 5:27 p.m. ET, Mon., Feb. 11, 2008

AURORA, Colo. – Debbie Baros, a full-time caretaker for her elderly father, was facing some tough choices when a cold snap more than doubled the heating bills.

“Our utility bill went sky-high,” said Baros, sitting next to her father, Anthony, on a couch in their Aurora townhome.

Quick help from the federally funded Low Income Energy Assistance Program lowered their heating bills to normal levels.

“Once we got the information to them, we were approved the next day,” Baros said.

The director of the Colorado energy assistance program, known as LEAP, hopes more people who need help will check to see if they’re eligible because the state has received an additional $8 million this season.

The money is part of a $450 million contingency fund released by President Bush on top of roughly $31 million granted to the state in the federal energy bill. The extra bump from the contingency funds last year was only $1.7 million.

“I’m hoping we’re going to exceed 100,000 households this year,” said Scott Barnette, who manages the program in the Colorado Department of Human Services.

In late January, nearly 49,000 households statewide got help from LEAP. The total that participated last winter was about 93,000.

Barnette attributes a slight decline in numbers so far to a mild November. The program runs from November through April.

Another issue could be a state law requiring proof of legal residency for some public services. Barnette said elderly citizens who don’t have a driver’s license and are homebound might feel intimidated.

The state works with county agencies and a public relations firm to reach eligible people. Applications are available at county social service agencies or by calling 1-866-HEAT-HELP or 1-866-432-8435.

Applicants who aren’t in the country legally can’t qualify, but a household with children who are U.S. citizens can.

Households making up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible. That works out to be a monthly gross income of $3,184 for a family of four or $1,574 for one person.

Last winter, LEAP covered an average 38 percent of a recipient’s monthly heating bill.

“For a lot of people, it comes down to making the choice between food on the table or heat,” Barnette said.

Energy Outreach, a nonprofit that raises money from companies and others to help low-income Coloradans with heating costs, estimates combined natural gas and electric bills for most homes are up 5 to 8 percent from last year.

“Thousands of people are in danger of having their utilities shut off,” said Skip Arnold, Energy Outreach executive director.

Arnold said this year’s heating costs are the second-highest he has seen, behind 2005 when the fallout from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita drove up natural gas prices. He said a big factor is the Rockies Express Pipeline, being built in phases to carry gas from the region to the Midwest.

Gas prices in the area will increase as the local supply decreases.

Baros and her 72-year-old father, a retired steel mill worker from Pueblo, have already seen the increases. Cold snaps in December and January drove up their monthly heat bill to $291 from around $110. The LEAP money has covered more than half the cost.

“My dad being on a fixed income and being on a budget, there’s only a certain amount for everything,” Baros said. “Thank god LEAP came in at the right time.”

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