New Hampshire Union Leader, June 29, 2008: Heating help ahead

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New Hampshire Sunday News Staff

Sunday, Jun. 29, 2008

Summer may be just starting, but the agencies that give out fuel assistance are already worried about how folks will pay for heat this winter, as oil prices continue to climb.

“We had our highest year of need ever this year for fuel assistance, and every projection is that prices are going to stay as high or go higher for heating oil and other petroleum-based fuels, kerosene and propane, this winter,” said Amy Ignatius, director of the state Office of Energy and Planning, which administers the federally-funded program.

Some of New Hampshire’s neediest households — seniors 60 and older, the disabled, and families with children under 6 years old — can apply for fuel assistance for the coming winter starting on Tuesday. The rest have to wait until Sept. 1 to apply.

Last year, more than 35,000 New Hampshire households got help from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

The Office of Energy and Planning is urging everyone worried about paying for heat this winter to apply for the program, even if they don’t think they qualify.

“I talk to people all the time that self-screen,” said Celeste Lovett, fuel assistance program manager for the state OEP. “They should not do that.”

She recommends folks contact their local community action agencies, which handle LIHEAP applications and “might know of different programs in a community that might help someone who is not eligible for fuel assistance.”

Funding concerns

Those agencies are already worried about how far federal funding will go this year. “These are the highest fuel costs that we’ve seen, and naturally they will have the most detrimental effects on our low-income households,” said Louise Bergeron, energy director for Southern New Hampshire Services, which administers the program in Hillsborough County.

“My best hope is that Congress will be cognizant of the need and . . . that they will make sure New Hampshire gets the money it needs to serve its low-income, elderly and disabled populations,” Bergeron said. “Last year, they came through and we were able to serve all the people who applied.”

But with the price of heating oil already above $4.50 a gallon — $2 more than it was last summer — Bergeron said, “The fuel assistance benefit will certainly be a help, but it just won’t buy the amount of product that it used to buy.”

New Hampshire received more than $22 million in LIHEAP funds last winter. The fuel assistance program was created after the last energy crisis the nation faced, back in 1973.

Multiple factors considered

The state sets income guidelines every year based on the funds available and the need, according to Lovett. Annual heating costs are also figured into the equation, and there are caps on the grants given out.

This year, Ignatius said, she’s also worried about families who don’t qualify for fuel assistance but, already strapped by rising food and gas prices, won’t have enough money to pay for heat. “That is a real concern because there just aren’t a lot of avenues to turn to,” she said.

Last year, Bergeron said, a $7,500 donation from the Bishop’s Charitable Assistance Fund helped some people who were not eligible for LIHEAP.

She is again looking for private donations and grants to supplement her fuel aid budget.

A program created by several utilities, Neighbor Helping Neighbor, provides grants of up to $300 for utility costs to folks who don’t qualify for fuel assistance, but have experienced financial hardship and received a disconnect or “broken payment” notice.

Bergeron, who is also president of the Neighbor Helping Neighbor board, said the group may have to reconsider what constitutes a financial hardship this year.

“We have seen many people come in with utility disconnects this spring; they were not able to pay their utilities because they had to pay for their heating fuels,” she said. “So that can qualify, certainly.”

Help on many levels

State energy director Ignatius said she wants to enlist private organizations, businesses, charities and faith-based groups to help folks out this winter.

Meanwhile, welfare officials are bracing for more requests for assistance this coming winter. By state law, their offices serve as the final safety net for folks who need help in an emergency.

“The towns are just going to get whacked,” said Keith Bates, director of welfare in Portsmouth, who is president of the New Hampshire Local Welfare Administrators Association.

“I think there’s definitely a little bit of a siege mentality out there and worries about what’s going to happen, but also a feeling of helplessness too,” he said.

Under RSA 165, “Whenever a person in any town is poor and unable to support himself, he shall be relieved and maintained by the overseers of public welfare of such town.”

“The spirit of the law goes back a couple centuries ago, when people helped their neighbors,” Bates explained.

Some folks who have never asked for help before may be unaware of this provision, but Bates said, “That’s what we’re here for.”

“The law was written so people don’t have emergencies and don’t end up cold.”

Whether they expect to receive assistance or not, Ignatius said, “People need to be working on a budget plan, on how they’re going to be able to keep up with paying their bills.”

Start preparing

And, Ignatius says, now is the time for consumers to winterize their homes, adding insulation, replacing or repairing windows, and preparing to close off unused areas — “anything they can do to cut down on wasted heat.”

“It’s going to have to be a combination of all of those things to get people through the winter, I’m afraid,” she said.

Customers should also contact their fuel dealers to discuss the best payment options for the coming winter, says Bob Garside, president of the Oil Heat Council of New Hampshire. “It’s going to be a difficult year,” he said.

Garside said while pre-pay deals are rare this year, most companies offer budget plans that let you spread out your payments year-round, and that could help some folks deal with high heating oil costs. But many dealers have customers who still owe them money from last winter, he said, and those customers will have to work out payment plans before they can get fuel delivered this winter.

It’s not just consumers struggling with high oil prices, Garside said. “I have received calls from dealers that are considering whether they want to stay in the business or not. It’s a very difficult time to manage your finances.”

“I’ve been in this business 45 years and I’ve never, never seen it like this — except in 1972,” Garside said. “And that’s when the government came in and put price controls on the petroleum industry.”

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