Proposal shortens heating aid program
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A federally-funded program that assists homeowners with their heating bills will run for a shorter period of time this winter, reducing the availability of benefits by six weeks, according to a proposal by the state agency that administers the program.
The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or Liheap, administered by the Department of Public Welfare, offers two types of assistance: the cash component and the crisis component. In years past, both were available from early November through the end of March.
Under the DPW proposal for fiscal year 2010, the cash benefit will be available from Dec. 1, 2009, through Jan. 3, 2010, and the crisis benefit will be available from Jan. 4, 2010, through March 15, 2010.
The cash benefit is the more commonly given of the two. The amount is based on a number of factors, including household size and income, the applicant's location and fuel type.
For the first time, the proposal establishes a maximum cash benefit of $1,000 with a $100 minimum. Last year, the minimum was $300, with no maximum.
The crisis benefit is for households that are either "without heat or in imminent danger of being without heat." For the crisis benefit, the plan proposes a minimum of $50 and a maximum of $300. Last year, the maximum was $800.
The reduction in the program schedule and the smaller amounts available per household reflect a reduction in the program's budget, said DPW spokeswoman Stacey Witalec.
Last year, a record $5.1 billion was allocated for the program nationwide; Pennsylvania's share of the federal funds was $308.4 million. Additionally, the Rendell administration provided $280 million, only the second allocation ever made of state funds for the program. This year, President Obama requested $2.41 billion, of which Pennsylvania's share would be $142.6 million. Also, there are no program funds being carried over from last year, as there was last year from two years ago. And there are no State Energy Conservation Act funds allocated for Liheap, as there were last year.
"The reason the current budget is reflective of the $2.4 billion is that we have to write the plan reflecting funds that we know are available," Ms. Witalec said.
But Michael Love, executive director of the Energy Association of Pennsylvania, a trade group, said that the plan is overly conservative, and called it a "disaster."
Noting that the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment last month to fund the program for $5.1 billion, he said, "Why wouldn't you assume the higher amount, especially since the Senate already said they're going to pass it?
"Even if you thought that that wasn't going to happen, wouldn't you make a Plan B?"
Ms. Witalec said that if the federal allocation is increased, DPW will amend the plan accordingly.
As the plan stands, Mr. Love said, fewer people will receive the cash benefit, and none at all will receive the crisis grant. That is because the time period when the state will make the crisis grant available is the very time when utility companies are restricted from shutting off service for low-income families; and such shutoffs are basis for receiving the grant.
The agency will conduct a public hearing on the plan, the last of three, rom 9 a.m. to noon Thursday in the Gold Room of the Allegheny County Courthouse. The first hearing was held yesterday in Harrisburg; the second is being held today in Philadelphia.
The plan is available online at www.dpw.state.pa.us/ServicesPrograms/LIHEAP/003676506.htm.
First Published August 25, 2009 12:00 am