Less heating fuel assistance available this winter

ADDISON COUNTY — Addison County’s low-income households will have a tougher time keeping their homes warm this winter in light of new eligibility standards and tighter resources for federal fuel assistance, according to state and local human services advocates.
Richard Moffi, fuel program chief for the state of Vermont, said current signs point to the Green Mountain State receiving around $17 million through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). That is approximately 5 percent less than the state received last winter.
He noted state government is trying to mitigate some of the impacts of that cut by offering a combined total of $8.1 million in fuel assistance. All told, Vermont expects to have around $4 million less to give out in fuel grants this winter than it did last year.
But the bottom line, according to Moffi, is that the average fuel assistance benefit for qualifying households this winter will be $800, down from the $900 average benefit last winter. State officials have thus far issued fuel benefits to 24,000 households, according to Moffi. It’s expected that a total of 27,500 to 28,000 households will be served throughout this winter.
Moffi is hoping cash-strapped Vermonters take advantage of every fuel savings opportunity that comes their way. Among them, according to Moffi, is the Green Mountain Power energy assistance program that extends a qualifying households a 25 percent discount off the monthly charge for the first 600 kilowatt hours of energy they use. This could save participating families up to $300 a year, according to GMP officials.
“That’s about $25 per month,” Moffi said. “If you are on a fixed income, your Social Security check is around $800 per month. So $25 per month is a nice chunk if you are on a fixed income.”
A family can earn up to $2,944 per month to qualify for the GMP discount.
Karen Haury is director of the Addison County branch of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity. Haury’s office — which recently relocated from Exchange Street to 54 Creek Road — deals directly with Addison County residents seeking heating fuel aid.
Haury confirmed Moffi’s description of current benefit levels and cited other concerns.
“One of the biggest (changes) is, you need to have applied for seasonal fuel assistance before we can help you,” Haury said. The state’s Seasonal Fuel Assistance Program helps low-income families pay a portion of their home heating bills with a single benefit paid between November and April. Haury explained that it used to be if you hadn’t applied for that program, CVOEO officials could help the client apply for those benefits and provide some “crisis” fuel assistance that same day knowing that the client’s (seasonal fuel) check would be coming.
“Now we can’t do that,” Haury said.
With that in mind, CVOEO spent many weeks trying to educate its clients on the change and encouraging them to apply for the seasonal fuel benefit, which used to be provided in up to three installments, instead of just one.
“We started late summer making people aware,” Haury said. “And we really make sure that when we meet with people that they know this is going to be their one assist.”
For that reason, Haury and her fuel aid worker Aliceanne Lavallee are telling people to be extra frugal with their household income and the manner in which they spend their fuel funds. For example, Haury does not encourage people to earmark their one fuel assist on an electricity bill.
“It’s early in the year,” she said, anticipating many more appeals for heating help in January and February after peoples’ incomes are depleted at a time when the thermometers can drop below zero.
“People are not in crisis mode quite yet,” Haury said.
In the meantime, CVOEO officials are working with area fuel dealers to get the best prices to maximize benefits for qualifying households.
“We are also telling people to keep an eye on their thermostat,” she said of clients.
Those who find themselves stranded in the bitter cold (when it’s 10 degrees or colder), and who are ineligible for the John Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes, can go to the new overnight shelter at the Memorial Baptist Church at 97 South Pleasant St. in Middlebury. The shelter is accepting over-night visitors during the coldest nights of the winter.
Those who exhaust their seasonal benefits often find themselves turning to Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE). The Middlebury-based nonprofit and local places of worship often provide the final safety net for people in danger of running out of fuel and/or electricity.
“We are seeing more requests, and earlier than usual,” said HOPE Executive Director Jeanne Montross. “We have been asked for more assistance as other programs have been cut back.”
When faced with fuel requests, HOPE looks within its budget and consults with other potential donors in an effort to fulfill the needs.
“Our community has been very responsive,” Montross said of the generosity of local individuals and nonprofits.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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