Local advocates ready for heating aid requests

ADDISON COUNTY — With the thermometer now consistently dipping below the freezing mark, Addison County residents of limited means have been firing up their furnaces and wood stoves with the hope that they won’t run out of fuel before the end of the winter. And various state and local organizations are offering programs to make sure frigid temperatures don’t claim any victims during the frigid months ahead.
On Nov. 14, more than 18,500 Vermont families received confirmation of their annual fuel benefit through the state’s Seasonal Fuel Assistance Program, according to Richard Moffi, fuel and utility programs director for Vermont. Another 2,000 families have been issued benefits for firewood or wood pellets.
The Seasonal Fuel program is the primary source of fuel aid for qualifying Vermont households. Recipients of this benefit are awarded an account through their local fuel vendor, after having consulted with their local community action agency. They can draw from their benefit allotment throughout the winter until it is exhausted.
A household must not earn more than 185 percent of the federal poverty guideline in order to qualify for the Seasonal Fuel program. That means a family of four cannot earn more than $44,122 per year.
Moffi said 26,600 households received a fuel-liability benefit of $792 last winter through the Seasonal Fuel program, and the same level of assistance is expected this year, according to Moffi. The state has kicked in an additional $6 million to the fuel program to ensure the $792 benefit level.
While the average benefit will not rise this year, it will provide a better bang for the buck.
“With prices for oil, propane and kerosene falling, the benefit will buy more fuel this year than last year,” Moffi said.
Seasonal Fuel program resources are dependent each year on congressional appropriations through the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP.
“Under a continuing resolution from Congress, federal funding from the LIHEAP program was released in mid-October,” Moffi noted. “Vermont received an allocation of 90 percent of last season’s $19.1 million. The remaining 10 percent will be resolved and released or reduced when the lame duck Congress either concludes work of the entire nation’s fiscal year 2015 budgets or passes that responsibility to the newly elected congress.”
Applications received by Feb. 28 will be eligible for a Seasonal Fuel benefit this winter. Vermonters are encouraged to call 1-800-479-6151 to get a two-page application, according to Moffi.
He encouraged qualifying families to consider the Seasonal Fuel program as only part of their solution.
“Seasonal fuel assistance is a supplemental benefit that helps families pay a portion of their winter heat,” Moffi said. “On average, the fuel assistance benefit covers about 30 percent of a family’s home heating cost. The balance is the responsibility of the family or individual.”
Karen Haury, director of Addison Community Action/Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, said her organization assisted more than 300 families that were seeking fuel aid last winter. She expects to see a similar volume this year. But she also stressed that the Seasonal Fuel program is not the only avenue that low-income families can pursue for fuel aid.
Kicking off on Monday, Nov. 24, the state’s Crisis Fuel Program provides additional funds for people who are facing a utility shutoff or empty fuel tank and have nowhere else to turn. Haury noted that applicants mush first have tried to secure Seasonal Fuel program funds, or have been determined ineligible for that program. Applicants should also try to ensure that their tank is at least one-quarter full when they apply, in order to avoid a same-day emergency delivery charge. A Crisis Fuel benefit equates to a single fuel allocation of 125 gallons of fuel, a ton of wood pellets or a cord of wood, Haury said.
Part of the battle, according to Haury, is letting people know about the available aid and getting them to apply for it in a timely manner.
“We start asking people in early summer, ‘Did you apply yet?’” Haury said.
Haury hopes that recipients of fuel aid are filling their tanks in order to take advantage of the current lower prices. Getting fuel in gradual installments throughout the winter might run the risk of having prices spike within a few months.
“Usually, the prices have changed dramatically by February,” Haury said.
Green Mountain Power’s Warmth Program can also help those in need. Established in 1986, the Warmth Program collects donations from its ratepayers and its own matching contribution to help low-income families pay their fuel bills.
Last month, GMP divided $130,000 among the state’s community action agencies, who in turn set up lines of credit with fuel dealers to dispense oil, propane, wood or electricity to households in need. The Warmth money is allocated based on the population of GMP customers in those areas. Green Mountain Power currently serves approximately 75 percent of the state, noted GMP spokeswoman Dotty Schnure.
GMP customers will receive Warmth Program donation requests in their November and December bills.
“We make lots of contributions (to charitable causes), and this is one of the most important ones that we do,” Schnure said.
Low-income residents who are clients of GMP are also eligible for a 25 percent discount on the first 650 kilowatt hours of their residential electricity under the company’s Energy Assistance Program. This program also includes provision for forgiveness of a portion of unpaid energy bills and arrangement of a pay-back schedule.
“There are over an estimated 33,000 low-income families in Vermont served by GMP that are income-eligible for this discount,” Moffi said, “however there are only just over 6,000 participating in the program.”
More information about the variety of fuel aid programs available to low-income Vermonters can be found online at http://dcf.vermont.gov/esd/fuel_assistance.
Also, the Middlebury organization Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects will field calls from people seeking fuel aid who have exhausted all other resources.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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