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Senators protest heating assistance cut

December 08, 2010
BERLIN — In times of economic downturns, cuts are made at all levels and people are expected to tighten their belts. However, some of the budget cuts proposed by the Federal government have been said to be rather drastic given their nature. Such is the issue with proposed cuts to LIHEAP (low-income home energy assistance program), which prompted Seantor Jeanne Shaheen to join with other legislators to write in defense of the program funding. Sen. Shaheen was among a group of 41 senators who drafted a letter to the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Committee (Daniel Inouye, Thad Cochran, and Tom Harkin) requesting that the program be funded at last years levels.

The cuts to LIHEAP are projected to hit colder states, such as New Hampshire, the hardest. This is because there has been a change in how the fuel assistance program calculates state assistance. The formula looks at factors such as a states population, the changes in unemployment, stability of temperatures, and household income. Some say that this leaves New England states in the cold while southern states get the bulk of the help because New England tends to have more stable unemployment rates and higher household incomes (along with a higher cost of living). Also, New England tends to have relatively stable winter temperatures, but some say it's not taken into account that those temperatures are below freezing.

The LIHEAP program was created in 1981 by the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act and has been helping low-income households pay their utility bills since. This year, the program was cut from $5.1 billion to $3.3 billion, a cut of $1.8 billion. Although New Hampshire — along with neighbor Vermont — have some of the lowest unemployment rates in the United States, fuel assistance requests have increased in the past years. Also, the cost of home heating fuel has risen since this time in 2009. It has been projected that nationwide, 10 million households will be looking for assistance, compared with 8.8 million last year.

In Cos County, LIHEAP assistance is administered through the Tri County Community Action Program (Tri County CAP), specifically run by Kathy McCosh. The program opens on Dec.1 and ends on Apr.30.

According to McCosh, last year the 30-day income limit for a household of four was $4,608 while this year the income limit for a household of four is $3,625. That means that people who qualified for help last year may make, according to the federal government, too much money to get fuel assistance.

There are additional differences this year, according to McCosh. Last year the program was able to provide "supplemental benefits in addition to regular benefits to eligible households." The average benefit last year was $925, while this year it is anticipated to be more than $300 less at $600.

Also this year, since the income limit has been changed, McCosh predicts that the program in Cos will only be able to help around half the people it did last year. Last year, in Cos, 2,688 households were assisted with nearly $2.5 million in direct benefits.

Already, as of Dec.3, the Tri-County CAP office in Berlin has received 2,201 applications and the program opened on Dec.1. That would mean that the current number of applications already exceeds the number of people McCosh predicts the program will be able to assist.

McCosh said that in the North Country in particular, where unemployment has been rising and the economy is depressed, the program, at current funding levels, likely won't be able to help as many households and those it can help will receive less than the year prior. This will put a strain on other charitable organizations and perhaps leave some residents in the cold.

If there is not emergency intervention, the LIHEAP funds for New Hampshire this winter could be $19.7 million, down from $40.8 million last year. Officials have said that 188,000 New Hampshire families qualify for the assistance, but it is only guaranteed for the first 25,000. Even in years when LIHEAP was funded at the maximum levels, it was only able to provide fuel assistance to 20 percent of the applicants nationwide.

New Hampshire passed legislation in 1994 that allowed utilities to place unclaimed utility deposits into an existing fuel fund called Neighbor Helping Neighbor. The fund itself was created in 1986. According to http://liheap.ncat.org/pubs/865.htm the legislation works by allowing "the public utilities commission to certify that utilities are participating in a financial assistance program that assists low-income households with utility bills. Upon certification, the utility pays 85 percent of the unclaimed funds into the fuel fund program, which is also certified by the commission." Five out of six New Hampshire electric utilities and two gas utilities participate in the program, including PSNH, the largest electric utility in the state.

Neighbor Helping Neighbor is a program for those households that make too much money to qualify for LIHEAP, but who are challenged by their utility bills all the same.

Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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