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Heating Help Declines as Need Only Grows

Adam and Jessica Vivian of Canaan, N.H. play a game of Monopoly with their children, Jamison,7, Hailey,3, and Peyton,6, on Jan. 11, 2013. Visiting is Alex Clough,9, a family friend from Keene, N.H.
Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Adam and Jessica Vivian of Canaan, N.H. play a game of Monopoly with their children, Jamison,7, Hailey,3, and Peyton,6, on Jan. 11, 2013. Visiting is Alex Clough,9, a family friend from Keene, N.H. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

Canaan — Adam and Jessica Vivian used to keep the thermostat in the mid-60s Fahrenheit in the double-wide Canaan mobile home they share with their four young children. But they switched from oil heat to a wood pellet stove two years ago, allowing them to cover their entire $800 home heating bill with a federal fuel assistance program last winter. Now, they feel comfortable this year ticking it up to a comfortable 75 F.

The family is still waiting to find out how much heating assistance they’ll receive for this season, with hopes that it will be enough to cover the costs of the wood pellets they’ve been paying for out of their pocket. The letter, Adam Vivian said, should come in the mail “any day now.”

“We’re anxious to see,” he said.

In the wake of the recent cold snap in the Upper Valley, and, indeed, the country, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are battling to get restore funding for the program that they say crucially provides fuel-cost assistance to vulnerable Americans.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., is among a bipartisan group of lawmakers pushing President Obama to prioritize the program in the 2015 fiscal budget.

“We understand the ongoing discretionary budget challenges,” Welch said in a letter to Obama last week. “However, we are deeply concerned that funding for LIHEAP has declined more than 30 percent in recent years. Moreover, the number of households eligible for assistance continues to exceed available funding.”

In Vermont, federal funding for the 2012-13 heating season dropped to $18.3 million, down from $19.5 million the previous year.

Once Congress passes a budget for that covers this heating season, Vermont Fuel Assistance Program Chief Richard Moffi said he anticipates funding for the state could drop to just under $17 million for this season, a 6 percent decrease.

“It really does assume not the worst, but a bad-case scenario,” he said, whether the cuts are considered part of sequestration or just general cutbacks.

Similarly, federal funding for New Hampshire has dropped from nearly $26 million two seasons ago to about $24 million last year.

According to LIHEAP Clearinghouse, a website that tracks the program, New Hampshire’s anticipated funding for the current heating season is just over $22 million.

Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., is also seeking to restore funding.

“It’s unconscionable to cut this vital program for Granite Staters who could go cold without it,” Kuster said in a news release. “With a long and cold winter ahead, Congress needs to step up and pass a budget that will restore LIHEAP funding and protect low-income and middle class Granite Staters.”

Despite a continuous decline in LIHEAP funding in recent years, several congressional lawmakers from the Twin States have blamed the likely cuts to the current season on the sequester, the automatic budget cuts to the federal budget across most departments and agencies.

According to a news release from Kuster’s office, in New Hampshire alone, sequestration cut more than $1.6 million from the program this season.

Nationwide, the sequester resulted in 194,000 households being cut from the program, according to the release, from 6.9 million to roughly 6.7 million.

Vermont has contributed funds from its state budget for the past two seasons and is expected to contribute $8.1 million this year, according to information from Moffi.

A spokesman for New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan called LIHEAP an “important federal program” that provides “critical” assistance to many of the state’s low-income families and senior citizens.

“The state has historically relied exclusively on the federal program to meet the heating needs of people who rely on deliverable fuels ... and deep cuts to LIHEAP in recent years has meant fewer of the most vulnerable Granite Staters have been able to access this program,” Marc Goldberg said in a statement. “The Governor thanks New Hampshire’s Congressional Delegation for working to increase LIHEAP funding and encourages Congress to strengthen this essential program.”

Meanwhile, the average price of home heating oil in December was $3.77 a gallon, according to the Vermont Public Service Department, which tracks fuel prices. That’s a 1 percent decrease from last year.

Matt Cota, executive director of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, said that this winter is not only colder than last winter, but it’s also on track to be one of the coldest winters in the last decade. And the colder it gets, the more fuel is used.

As funding has declined in the Green Mountain State from more than $38 million in 2009, the average fuel benefit per Vermont household is shrinking. Households will receive an average of just under $800 for the season, down from about $900 last year and a 10-year peak of about $1,700 in 2009. Renters are projected to receive about $240 for the season.

At the same time, the number of Vermont households seeking fuel assistance is expected to double since 2005, up to 28,600 households, by the end of March.

In New Hampshire, a decline in funds has meant the elimination of assistance for 1,200 low-income New Hampshire households, according to the release from Kuster’s office. About 36,800 households were served last winter, according to LIHEAP Clearinghouse.

For people who use the program, like the Vivians in Canaan, the continuing decreases could pose a hardship. Adam Vivian makes $13.50 an hour working in highway maintenance for the Town of Dorchester, and Jessica raises their children, ages 3 to 10.

The family used the program to offset about half of their $2,200 heating bill for the season when they first moved in three years ago, and it covered their entire $800 bill when they switched over to wood pellet heat last winter when a friend gave them a free wood pellet stove.

Without fuel assistance, said Adam Vivian, 29, “we would for sure have to cut something.

“Whether that be a lesser Christmas, obviously because it’s more important to have heat than presents, or activities for the kids like ... the ski program in the school ... we’d just have to cut where we can, which sucks for the kids obviously, we’re trying to make the kids have the most normal life possible,” he said.

Angel Hudson of Tri-County Community Action Program, the Lebanon office that operates the program locally, said she’s seeing fewer people apply for fuel assistance this year, but she said she doesn’t think the reason is necessarily because of a lack of need.

There has been transition in the Tri-County CAP office during the past few years, and Hudson said that the office might not have communicated with residents to schedule them for an appointment for fuel assistance the same way that it has in the past.

Hudson said she has completed little more than 300 fuel assistance applications for this fiscal year, but normally she would have completed between 400 and 500 by now. The office receives an average of about 700 applications a year.

Residents can apply for fuel assistance in New Hampshire through April 30, and she said she’s trying to remind people of that.

The federal government sets a range of guidelines for states to determine who is eligible for LIHEAP funding, and each state can pick a set of guidelines within that range.

In New Hampshire, applicants can earn no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty line, meaning a gross income of $3,871 a month for a family of four.

When people do apply, Hudson said she helps residents fill out an application, which is sent to Tri-County CAP’s main office in Berlin, N.H. Applicants can qualify for $120 to $1,125 of fuel assistance based on their income and the number of people in their home, Hudson said.

“These people, especially those who are on fixed incomes, come here every year and they depend on this to get through the season,” Hudson said. “After paying bills, they might only have $20 in their pocket for emergencies.”

Hudson said she encourages people to apply even if they don’t think they fall within the income guidelines because there could be other options that they qualify for. She estimates about 85 percent of people who have applied for LIHEAP through her office are approved.

In Vermont, the state provides seasonal fuel assistance to a family of four earning up to $3,632 a month, and crisis fuel assistance to a family of four earning up to $3,926 a month.

Moffi, Vermont’s fuel assistance program chief, said benefits are given on sliding scales of economic need and energy burdens. Although the average benefit is about $800, a person or family at the top end of the income requirements would likely receive much less.

Similarly, a person with a higher oil bill would receive more than a person making the same amount of money, but, for example, using a wood pellet stove that results in a smaller fuel bill.

Statewide, residents can apply for seasonal fuel assistance through the Economic Services Division of the Department for Children and Families by calling 1-800-479-6151. Crisis fuel assistance is operated in the Upper Valley region by Southeastern Vermont Community Action.

Moffi said residents can apply year-round, but Feb. 28 is the last day to apply to receive payment for this season.

Even though Cota, of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, said that the winter has been colder than recent seasons, he said average fuel consumption per home has dropped over the past decade by 20 percent because of improvements in both building structure and oil burning equipment. And more people are getting their homes weatherized.

So while homeowners are on track to burn more oil this year than in past years because of the cooler temperatures, Cota said that overall consumption is down compared to previous years because of improvements to homes and heating equipment.

Like Hudson, Moffi encouraged people to apply even if they don’t think they fit the guidelines, as they may be referred to other programs and options.

“If folks are struggling to pay their bills, we encourage them to call ... and ask about what benefits are available,” he said. “If somebody has a lost a job or just lost overtime hours, it was just those overtime hours that were keeping them just ahead on paying their bills, we want to talk to them now, we don’t want to wait until they’ve gone through their savings and run up their credit cards and nothing has gotten better in the job market and they’ve come to us. ... We want to help sooner than later.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220. Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.