MIDDLEBURY — Addison County residents seeking help to stay warm this winter have several options at their disposal, but the coordinators of those myriad programs have a common message: Apply early.
“If you apply after Dec. 1, you lose benefits,” said Richard Moffi, fuel assistance program chief for the Vermont Department of Children and Families. Moffi keeps close tabs on Vermont’s Seasonal Fuel Assistance Program, funded with federal dollars through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
The seasonal program provides a heating fuel allowance — paid directly to dealers — for eligible families. In order to be eligible, families may not earn more than $2,298 per month for a family of four, which is 125 percent of the federal poverty guideline.
Moffi said his office sent out 38,000 application packets to potentially eligible households around the state this past summer. Around 28,500 households have returned applications thus far, a number that is down roughly 2,600 families compared to the same time last year.
Officials aren’t shocked by the slight reduction in applications this year. Moffi noted that while the economy continues to lag, conditions aren’t as bad as they were at this time in 2008, when the recession was peaking and fuel prices were at around $4 per gallon (though prices dropped considerably before harsh winter weather). A whopping 41,000 households applied for seasonal fuel assistance last year, according to Moffi.
The price of heating fuel oil has been hovering around $2.40 per gallon, according to Moffi. Retail heating oil prices in the Northeast have dropped about 42 percent compared to this time last year, according to the Vermont Department of Public Service. While home heating energy prices are down, they are still more than many Vermonters can afford over the course of an entire winter, officials said.
“For low-income folks, anything over $2 per gallon is unaffordable; it’s a budget-buster,” Moffi said.
Vermont right now is on target to get the same LIHEAP appropriation it received last year: $25.6 million, Moffi said. It should be noted, however, that a presidential authorization of federal contingency funds last winter netted Vermont another $13 million for fuel assistance.
“There are no contingency funds at this time,” Moffi said.
There are other assistance avenues beyond the seasonal fuel program that needy residents can turn to.
Those facing dire financial circumstances — and who face the potential for utilities shut-offs — can look into the state’s Crisis Fuel Assistance Program. The program is open to households earning up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $2,757 per month for a family of four. The program helps families buy wood, electricity, propane, kerosene, or even finance furnace repairs or replacement.
People can apply for Crisis Fuel Assistance between the last Monday in November and the last Friday in April.
Those seeking assistance for either the seasonal or crisis programs should inquire with Addison Community Action/Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (ACA/CVOEO) at 700 Exchange St. (call 388-2285), or log on to www.helpforvt.org and click on to the “heating assistance” link.
Suzanne Sampson, fuel assistance coordinator at ACA/CVOEO, said she expects this winter to be on par, client-wise, with last winter — which she called the busiest she had seen in three years in her job.
“People are needing a lot more assistance all the way around,” Sampson said.
Sampson helps guide people through the application hoops for heating assistance. She began her duties on Oct. 1 and will continue to do so through May 15.
“My first day, I saw around nine people,” she said of the early demand. She encourages applicants to bring their household budget/financial paperwork with them when they apply.
Sampson will also help people this winter seeking assistance though the Shareheat and Warmth programs, spearheaded by Central Vermont Public Service Corp. (CVPS) and Green Mountain Power, respectively. Both programs can be tapped for heating emergencies. In the case of Shareheat, CVPS has pledged $100,000 in matching dollars for a program that dispensed more that $375,000 in heating aid to approximately 1,000 families in its service area, which includes Addison County. The state’s largest utility is currently reaching out to the business community to beef up the match before asking for public donations, according to CVPS spokesman Steve Costello. He said Shareheat has provided $3.1 million in heating assistance since it was established in 1987.
A family of four earning up to 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline ($3,676 per month) can qualify for assistance for the Shareheat and Warmth programs.
For people who might still slip through the cracks, the Addison County religious community and nonprofits such Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) and the Addison County Parent-Child Center are also offering up help this winter.
Jeanne Montross, executive director of HOPE, said her organization continues to maintain a woodpile and an account for people facing utility shut-offs. But Montross stressed that HOPE can only give crisis heating aid after an intensive review of the applicants’ finances.
“We are not going to ask the community to subsidize the cable companies,” Montross said of some expenses applicants should trim before asking for help. “But we typically don’t turn people away if they are trying.”
Last year, HOPE gave out 12 cords of firewood, and provided an average grant of $100 to 47 households needing help with heat or utilities.
And for the second year in a row, the Addison County Parent-Child Center is administering, in collaboration with ACA/CVOEO, a fuel assistance fund that last year raised $10,500 through area congregations, private donations and grants.