Scramble for fuel aid heats up as temperatures fall

ADDISON COUNTY — Vermont will officially enter winter next week having received $14.4 million of the total $14.9 million in heating fuel assistance that the federal government has thus far earmarked for the entire season.
And that $14.9 million total is considerably less than the $25.6 million the state received in federal heating fuel help last year.
That was the word on Monday from Richard Moffi, fuel assistance program chief for the Vermont Department of Children and Families (DCF). Moffi’s job includes keeping track of Low-income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funding for Vermont’s Crisis and Seasonal fuel aid programs. These programs provide fuel subsidies for qualifying households that need help staying warm during the winter months.
“We are still looking today at a $10 million shortfall,” Moffi said of the amount he expects Vermonters will need in fuel assistance.
The shortfall — which could still be backfilled by Congress — is reducing the amount of fuel aid benefits that agencies can dispense to qualifying families. And there are about 36 percent more qualifying families this year as a result of the Vermont Agency of Human Services expanding eligibility standards. Households may gross up to 185 percent of the federal poverty guideline (up to $3,401 monthly for a family of four) to qualify for the Seasonal fuel aid program, and a more generous 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline for the Crisis fuel aid program. Prior to this year, the agency used lower net-income thresholds, with various deductions.
As a result, the DCF had received 37,500 fuel-assistance applications as of Nov. 30, of which it had processed 35,500 as of Monday. Benefits have been sent out to 22,000 applicants thus far, according to Moffi.
All of those numbers are well ahead of last year, Moffi said, though the benefit amounts certainly aren’t.
Last year, qualifying families received an average fuel aid subsidy of $1,100 for the winter, according to Moffi. That’s considerably more than the $660 average benefit that recipients are expected to receive during the course of this winter, if Vermont’s LIHEAP share doesn’t rise increase from the current expectation of $14.9 million.
“If we get more money, we are poised to issue … bonus benefits,” Moffi said.
“It is totally up in the air as to what Congress will do.”
Congress has not yet approved budget bills for the coming year. The U.S. Senate and the Obama administration have thus far authorized $3.3 billion in total LIHEAP funding nationwide, down from the $5.1 billion last year.
Vermont’s Congressional delegation has urged that LIHEAP be funded again at the $5.1 billion level.
In a joint statement released late last week, U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and U.S. House Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said, “As many Vermonters prepare for the winter months ahead in this tough economy, we must do all we can to provide crucial, basic resources, like home heating, to those in need … We are continuing to fight for additional LIHEAP funds in the fiscal year 2011 budget to ensure than nobody in our state is forced to face the choice between food or medicine and heat.”
The organization Addison Community Action/Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (ACA/CVOEO) has been helping throngs of people sign up for fuel benefits since the weather started getting cold. And 18 people alone showed up seeking Crisis fuel aid on Nov. 29, the first day on which those benefits were available, according to ACA/CVOEO Director Karen Haury. The organization has helped around 100 people secure fuel aid during the past two weeks, according to Suzanne Sampson, crisis fuel worker with ACA/CVOEO.
“Eighteen people showing up for fuel on one day — that’s big for Middlebury,” Haury said on Monday during a brief respite from answering phone calls from people seeking help for food, clothing and other services. Agencies like Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects and local clergy have also noted an up-tick in requests for aid.
And in most cases, the organizations have less to give.
Haury noted she’s had many clients in recent weeks whose fuel benefit has not been enough to cover the 100-gallon minimum order that most dealers require to make a delivery. Those relying on propane heat have been most dramatically affected, according to Haury.
“The (fuel assistance programs) are serving more people this year — but more people at a deep cut in benefits,” Haury said.
Clients this year have included people that Haury had recognized as previous ACA/CVOEO donors.
She recalled speaking with one woman who told her, “I never thought I’d be here, but now I’m asking you for services.”
Among those asking for aid is been a 58-year-old woman from Starksboro. The woman, who asked that her name not be used, suffered a brain aneurism 15 years ago that she said has left her unable to re-enter the work force. She lives on around $10,000 per year in federal Supplemental Security Income benefits. Her son lives with her and is unemployed, in part because he cannot afford a vehicle to go to work. Starksboro is not on the Addison County Transit Resources bus route at this time.
“My budget is extremely tight,” the woman said on Tuesday.
She said she received enough emergency fuel assistance last winter to help her keep her 920-square-foot home warm. She has calculated that this year’s benefit will leave her 172 gallons short of making it through the winter.
She said she’s made her abode as weather-tight as possible, has set the thermostat at 65 degrees and wears a goose-down vest all the time.
“I can’t even afford to play the lottery,” the woman said wryly, when asked how she might adjust her budget to compensate for the reduction in her fuel subsidy. “We are stuck. There is nothing we can do at this point except ask for help.
“I am grateful for what I do have,” she added.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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