2005-12-01 / Front Page

County Residents Offered Programs To Cope With Rising Heating Costs

By Paul Gingras

Emergency assistance programs to ease skyrocketing heating expenses already are in place in the Eastern Upper Peninsula, and others will be available this month and in January.

The big three assistance providers are the Community Action Agency, the Department of Human Services, and Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

In addition, Governor Jennifer Granholm has asked energy companies to lengthen the time between the date utility bills are sent out and when they are due, and has enacted rules which prevent utilities from shutting off services or charging late payment fees for failure to pay bills on time.

A third buffer prohibits utility companies from excluding services to seniors or others on fixed incomes, residents who are exceptionally vulnerable to the energy crisis.

Michigan’s natural gas company rates are being closely monitored by the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC).

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), accessible through the Department of Human Services, has been enhanced this winter in anticipation of higher energy costs.

Don Wright of Community Action Agency in St. Ignace said his organization is likely to receive emergency funding from the Michigan Public Service Commission for distribution to needy households.

“We will not get a ton of money,” he said, “and what we do get won’t be available until after January, but we should know more by the middle of December.”

“We have already been receiving calls,” he said, “and the weather has been relatively mild.

“We’ve had to refer people to the Department of Human Services, and in some cases, to the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians for assistance.”

Tom Sherman is Weatherization and Emergency Services director for the Community Action Agency of Chippewa, Luce, and Mackinac counties. Mr. Sherman said that his organization expected to start some programs around December 1.

“Funding from the State Department of Human Services is limited right now,” he said, “so we are conducting a Walk for Warmth in Chippewa County and we plan to organize a walk in Mackinac County, and in St. Ignace, also.” These fundraising walks will be used to provide for people in need until other assistance becomes available.

Funding from state organizations is running slowly, he added, but Mr. Sherman said that his organization will be getting a piece of a $4.5 million assistance grant that will be used state-wide. It will take time to filter the money into this region, he noted.

Last year, he said, $3 million in assistance was used for what he termed “needed fuels,” such as electricity or natural gas; $1 million was used on fuel oil, propane, and wood, and $500,000 was set aside to be used as matching grants allocated to community action agencies which conducted Walk for Warmth fundraisers.

Mr. Sherman said he is unsure what his organization’s share will be this year, but he said that the Chippewa County Walk for Warmth generated $25,000. It was one of the most successful walks in Michigan, and some of the money will be used to help Mackinac County.

Walk for Warmth money is a safety net for people who don’t qualify for other assistance but need the help nonetheless, he said.

Almost all of the assistance available through the Community Action Agency used for immediate emergencies, such as a shut-off notice from a utility company, or documentation of refusal to deliver fuels to customers who are required to pay cash and do not have the money.

Since the Governor’s office is taking steps to stop such notices from being issued, however, Mr. Sherman concluded that the State of Michigan, directors of the Department of Human Services, and the Michigan Public Service Commission need to get together and determine the rules for eligibility.

“I don’t know how we’re going to get around that,” he said, “since a shut-off notice certainly establishes an emergency.” However, the State Service Association should have the rules established by the time funds become available.

“The governor’s protections are good, though,” he added, “because funding is so slow in getting to us.”

Mr. Sherman noted that not all Community Action Agency programs are available in all areas. Some are allocated specifically by county.

In Chippewa and Luce counties, for example, an emergency fund is available through the Homeless Prevention program. This program provides heating assistance to help keep people in their homes.

Other programs are offered in all three counties. Funding offered through the Community Action Agency is offered on a first-come, first-served basis. No county is favored by size. The money goes where it is needed, he said.

Those in Mackinac County interested in the projects provided by the Community Action Agency should contact Don Wright at 643-8595. The main office can be contacted at (800) 562-4963.

Last year, the Community Action Agency delivered $200,000 in assistance through four or five programs that served 372 households.

This year, the agency is receiving daily calls and drop-in visits but can do little more than offer “no funds available notices” which can be presented to the Department of Human Services, until funds become available through the Community Action network.

Mr. Sherman said that he is always busy this time of year, but added that it has been an unusually mild fall, as well.

Terri Bush, supervisor of the Department of Human Services (DHS) in St. Ignace, said that energy assistance is available through a program called State Emergency Relief (SER).

This program assists with energy emergencies, although it is designed to handle other types of emergencies as well.

“Anyone can apply,” said Ms. Bush. “We require some documentation, such as a utility bill or a shut-off notice.”

When people have trouble paying for deliverable fuel, such as fuel oil or propane, companies are good about providing documents stating that a given tank may have only 10 percent left, she said. These documents are useful to establish the need for emergency assistance.

DHS staff look at the income levels, check paycheck stubs, unemployment documentation, and social security documents to determine applicant eligibility for emergency funding.

Ms. Bush said that the program does have established limits. In a given year, her agency can provide a household with a maximum of $550 in assistance for natural gas, wood, or electricity.

Which applicants receive assistance is decided by a number of factors, she added, such as family size, however, people do not necessarily have to have extremely low incomes to receive help paying energy bills.

Households with higher-than-poverty-level incomes can receive assistance, also, she said, but people with such incomes would probably have to pay some portion.

For very low income residents, the agency may be able to pay the entire bill, she added.

Ms. Bush said a second program available in Mackinac County is called Emergency Services (ES). This is a smaller program than SER, but it does assist in paying energy bills.

“This program is designed to help people who fall through the cracks,” she said, “people who do not qualify for state assistance, or people who reach the cap of the SER program but still need help.”

Ms. Bush said that during the winter season, her office receives 10 to 15 applications a month, and less than 10 a month during warmer seasons of the year.

“Last year, state emergency funds were exhausted on July 30,” she said, “but the important thing is that we made it through the winter.”

The SER funding program reopened October 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.

Ms. Bush is especially concerned about residents who are already relying on other means of support, such as the 262 people who receive food assistance through DHS. These people are the most likely to need energy assistance as well, she said. But one important aspect to consider is that people in the western end of the country may go to Luce or Chippewa counties to get food assistance, if services are closer than those in St. Ignace. Therefore, the numbers she projects in terms of those requiring energy assistance in Mackinac County may be higher than she estimates.

According to Shirley Goudreau of the Anishnabeck Community Family Services Center (ACFS), heating assistance is available for members of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians under two programs.

The first program is funded in part through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), to which the Tribe adds its own funding. Assistance under this program is paid directly to the energy provider, rather than the individual.

The tribal eligibility requirement for heating assistance is one of the most generous in the area. A tribal member’s annual income can be up to 50 percent higher than the established poverty line, which is $9,750 for one person. According to Ms. Goudreau, this means that the Tribe must be extremely careful with its funding, because once it runs out, the Tribe cannot apply again.

In an average year, she said, the Tribe receives 700 applications. This year, 500 were received in October alone. Four hundred have been approved for energy assistance, and Ms. Goudreau expects the total applications received this year to exceed last year.

Tribal members can only apply for the LIHEAP funding once, but they do not need to present a disconnect notice to receive heating assistance.

“For example,” Ms. Goudreau said, “someone may receive a $600 credit toward energy bills, and that money will be used until it is exhausted, as opposed to applying for assistance each month a bill is due.”

The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians runs a second program for its members, in this case, targeted at households which are particularly vulnerable.

In the Crisis Energy program, Ms. Goudreau said the Tribe seeks “target households” susceptible to extreme weather, those populated by at least one tribal member living at or below the poverty line who is 60 years or older, someone who is permanently disabled and receives federal disability assistance in his or her name, or if there is a child aged five and under.

The application for this assistance has been simplified to expedite funding, she said, and can be made in January. Members with less dire circumstances can apply for Crisis Energy assistance, also, but the high risk “target households” are first in line.

The Tribe encourages its members to make even small payments to utility companies to avoid getting disconnection notices in the first place, Ms. Goudreau said. She strongly advocates setting up payment plans, also.

The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians has received $350,000 in federal funding to run these programs, which are widely distributed across seven counties, Mackinac, Chippewa, Luce, Schoolcraft, Alger, Delta, and Marquette.

Tribal members in Mackinac County who need these programs can contact ACFS staff at the Lambert Center in St. Ignace at 643-8103.

Ms. Goudreau encourages members to bring documentation to the office, where workers will help them fill out applications. This, she said, will speed up the process.

In Mackinac County, there are 1,233 people in poverty, according to the last census done in 1999.

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