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Emergency heating funds almost gone

It isn’t yet November but emergency heating funds are already more than half gone, East Missouri Action Agency Officials say.

According to Keri McCrorey, community services director, EMAA has already spent one-half of the federally funded state allocation they received for the Energy Crisis Intervention Program (ECIP) which provides assistance to eligible low-income families facing a shut-off notice for their utilities.

The agency received $498,118.79 for its grant this year, an amount that is spread over an eight-county area that includes St. Francois County. Last year the program helped 4,000 eligible families.

&#8220That was less funding than we got the previous year,” McCrorey said, &#8220and it has been going faster. I am very concerned about what we’re going to do in the very cold winter months if we don’t get additional funding to work with.”

In addition to the ECIP program, the agency also takes applications for ongoing non-emergency energy assistance for low income families. The eligible families’ information is forwarded to the state, which generally pays the energy provider directly.

Both programs are on a first-come, first-serve basis, but the latter program is statewide. With energy forecasts predicting 30 percent increases in home heating bills, local applications for that program have far out-paced that of previous years, McCrorey says.

The US Energy Information Administration has predicted 48 percent increases on natural gas bills, 32 percent increases on home heating oil, 30 percent increases on propane and 5 percent increases for electric.

McCrorey pointed out that is a significant bite in the budget for people of middle class incomes. It will be even harsher for low income families.

&#8220With a 30 percent increase in heating costs, they’ve got to be thinking, ‘I don’t know where the money is going to come from,’ ” she said. &#8220It’s a scary situation for a lot of people.”

On the first day energy assistance applications were available, there was a line of about 75 people waiting to apply at 6:30 a.m., McCrorey said. In all, 200 applied the first day, dramatically more than last year.

&#8220We’ve had people standing outside our door every day,” McCrorey said. &#8220 People know they’re going to see increased energy costs this winter. They want to get in and get approved before the assistance runs out.”

Once the state and federal money is gone, EMAA will fall back on private donations made through energy companies such as Ameren UE and Laclede Gas. McCrorey said there was about $100,000 available through AmerenUE’s program and about $60,000 through Laclede. Those funds are generated by customers who have signed up to make regular donations on their monthly bill with their respective energy provider.

After that, the agency will have to rely on donations from charitable organizations like the Ministerial Alliance or St. Vincent DePaul – but the latter are generally already helping with other emergencies, such as burn-outs and medicines, McCrorey said.

If, that is, they don’t get additional federal funding.

Advocates seek additional federal funding

At the federal level, advocates are urging Congress to approve additional energy assistance funding this fiscal year. The two programs McCrorey oversees for EMAA are under the umbrella of LIHEAP, or the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Twenty-eight governors have recently sent a signed letter to Congress requesting increased funding. Missouri Governor Matt Blunt was not among them, according to the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance, a coalition of advocates for LIHEAP that is tracking such things.

David Fox, executive director of the advocacy group, was hopeful Wednesday morning that U.S. Senators would approve a proposed amendment to the Health and Human Services appropriations bill to raise LIHEAP’s funding to its authorized $5.1 billion level.

However, that measure needed 60 votes to overcome required spending caps, and it only captured 54 votes.

U.S. Senator Jim Talent (R-MO) voted for the amendment, and has supported two other similar amendments to other appropriations bills.

&#8220We are expecting dramatically higher heating costs this winter and we need to help low-income Missourians who will be faced with bigger energy bills,” said Talent. &#8220In the Senate this year I’ve supported a total of $5.1 billion in assistance to help Americans grapple with the higher cost of heating their homes. The legislation I supported would have provided low-income Missourians with an additional $123 million in home heating assistance. I believe this is the least we can do to help vulnerable people, including our seniors, with their heating bills.”

He did not support the Gregg amendment, however, which would have raised LIHEAP funds by $1.2 billion with an across the board cut to the other programs like Head Start which are funded by the Health and Human Services bill. A staff member in Talent’s office said the Senator rejected the Gregg amendment because he believes the higher heating costs are an emergency.

Senator Kit Bond was among those voting against the bill that would have raised the funding to $5.1 billion. A staff member said the Senator voted against the bill because it was pure deficit spending.

The senator did vote for the Gregg amendment.

“This is already a tight budget year and with unexpected costs from Hurricane Katrina, Rita and now Wilma, tough choices have to be made. However, for low-income families on a fixed income heating costs hit hard,” Bond said. &#8220Clearly with natural gas prices at record high levels Congress needs to take another look at LIHEAP, the federal program that provides our neediest families relief from their energy bills.”

Fox said advocates are not giving up the fight for the additional funding. They hope to make a case for the increase to be included in hurricane assistance. &#8220That’s our fall-back plan,” he said. &#8220The hurricanes are part of the reason energy costs are going to increase so dramatically nationwide.”

Fox said a 2004 study in Missouri showed that low income families are sometimes doing without food or medicines to meet energy costs. The study, which surveyed 734 households, was done by the National Low Income Energy Consortium, a coalition of public, private and nonprofit organizations and individuals that seeks to reduce energy hardships for low-income families.

With 30 percent increases predicted on most energy sources, Fox fears even more people will be forced into that situation.

&#8220The struggle to pay home energy bills often leads to serious consequences in areas ranging from hunger, health care and housing to safety, education and employment,” Fox said. &#8220This is a grim fact both in Missouri and nationwide.”

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