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Vt. Crisis Fuel Runs Out Today

Gov. Peter Shumlin announced this week that the state’s crisis fuel fund needs an injection of $900,000 or it will run dry by today.

During a news conference yesterday, the governor began with a ceremonial tree-tapping exercise on the Statehouse lawn before announcing the unexpected shortage in the crisis fuel fund. Shumlin pledged that the fund will be shored up, despite the constricted budget, but said he didn’t know where the money will come from.

“We’re figuring that out,” he said.

The current shortfall represents about a third of the amount originally deposited in the emergency fund — $2.8 million.

The crisis fuel fund, which supplements LIHEAP, the state’s low income heating fuel assistance program, has served 4,500 families so far this year; last year it served 7,200. It runs from the last Monday in November to the last Friday in April.

Shumlin said the shortage came as a surprise to his administration and, other than a period of frigid weather, they aren’t sure what to attribute it to.

The unexpected upsurge in demand, coupled with uncertainty about federal funding, is prompting the Shumlin administration to take a closer look at the program.

LIHEAP is currently funded by $8.8 million from the state and $17.7 million in federal funding. Federal funds have been dwindling since 2010 and will decline further if the sequestration occurs. A report from the U.S. House Democratic Appropriations Committee shows that total federal LIHEAP funding to states would decrease by $185 million or 5 percent. This comes on top of a 32 percent reduction that has taken place since 2010. In Vermont, there could be a $2 million drop in funding if the sequester goes through, according to Matt Cota, lobbyist for the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association.

“While we are running a great program, it could be more efficient. And clearly we are not going to get more federal dollars,” Shumlin said.

The Shumlin administration plans to revisit the eligibility guidelines for the program.

Dave Yacavone, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, which administers LIHEAP, said, “We’ll do a lot of that through rulemaking when we look at eligibility — trying to make sure we serve the most vulnerable of the vulnerable when we don’t have enough resources. That will be an open and transparent process.”

Currently, 80 percent of households who receive fuel assistance include an elderly person, a disabled person, or a child under 6, according to Yacavone.

In order to be eligible for the LIHEAP, families must be at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level and to qualify for the crisis fund, they must be at or below 200 percent.

Shumlin says the state also hopes to save money in the future by negotiating better fuel purchasing deals, stepping up weatherization efforts, and more accurately calibrating how many gallons households need.