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In news that is both disheartening and heartening, North Carolina’s share of federal dollars going to help low-income residents pay for heating this winter and cooling next summer has been cut, but, state officials say, it’s more than they had originally expected.
And with officials saying there is no plan to add state money to Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program coffers, Sen. Richard Burr’s office was the only Western North Carolina congressional office to respond to questions about cuts to the program, which helps low-income households stay warm or cool. Neither U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler nor U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan responded to Carolina Public Press’ request for reaction.
But questions on what funding cuts mean to the region continue even after the Omnibus spending bill passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama last December included $3.5 billion for the federal program.
The funding is more than the $2.57 billion recommended by the president, who wanted to return funding to the program to levels set before the 2009 energy price spike. But it’s less than the $4.7 billion that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services distributed to states and other recipients last fiscal year.
North Carolina’s portion should reach $83 million, according to the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization whose members include community action centers and other agencies and utilities through which states distribute the LIHEAP money. That’s more than the $60 million to $77 million officials expected this fiscal year under Obama’s proposed cuts.
Still, it marks a $31 million decrease in program funds for programs helping the state’s low-income residents keep warm this winter when compared to the $114 million distributed last fiscal year.
That means thousands of laid-off workers, retirees on fixed incomes and parents with young children will not receive help this year, it appears.
“It’s going to be a tough year,” said Brandon Avila, spokesman for the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance, in Washington, D.C. “A lot of states are going to have to turn people away. Once their money is spent, we’re going to see what drastic impact it has on a state.”
Anticipating cuts, N.C. officials change who qualifies for help
Expecting a shortfall, the N.C. General Assembly made it harder to qualify for the money this year. Priority goes to the elderly and to households with a disabled person. If there’s any money left over on Feb. 1, other low-income people may apply.
Officials in North Carolina are still waiting to see what, if any, money it will receive in excess of the $60 million to $77 million currently anticipated to go toward the program, said Erica Jennings, a LIHEAP program consultant in the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
If it gets more money than it planned for, it may have more to distribute to counties, she said.
Last year, a record 9 million people applied for LIHEAP funding across the nation – more than twice the number just a few years ago, said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. He expects more than that will have applied this year before application periods end.
But most people won’t be helped, he said.
“We don’t have enough money to serve more people,” he said.
It’s not the first time cuts to the program have occurred.
Congress authorized $5.1 billion for LIHEAP last fiscal year, but a reduction in contingency money brought the total disbursement to $4.7 billion, according to the Campaign for Home Energy Assistance.
But even with $5.1 billion, states and other recipients would have been able to help only one in four eligible low-income families nationwide, Avila said.
At $3.5 billion, they’ll be able to help even fewer.
State has no plan to add money to program
Many states in the Northeast and Midwest use state money to supplement the federal program money. On Dec. 27, Vermont’s governor and legislature said the state would add $6.1 million in reserve funding to its LIHEAP allotment.
But there are no similar plans in North Carolina.
The state has no provision or policy for offering its own money, Jennings said. LIHEAP is strictly a federal program, and the state does not add money to the pot, she said.
“That probably won’t happen unless we get into some dire straits with one of the programs,” said Jennings, a LIHEAP program consultant in the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. “These programs are not normally run off any state dollars.”
Though the latest unemployment figures – 10 percent in North Carolina and 8.6 percent in the United States in November, seasonally adjusted – are better than they were this time last year, the number of people without jobs is still the highest it has been since the early 1980s.
The price of fuel oil has also risen about 10 percent over the last few years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The agency estimates that the bill for heating the average house with oil this winter will be $2,535. Two years ago, the average residential oil heating bill was $1,752.
The average LIHEAP household award in North Carolina is $200 for those who heat with natural gas, electricity, wood or coal and $400 for those who heat with fuel oil or LP gas, Jennings said – neither of which will cover the entire cost of heating most homes.
Program funds running out
Still, the program does help. The irony is it may not help some people who were eligible last winter, said Phillip Hardin, director of McDowell County Department of Social Services.
Elderly people who have taken in children or grandchildren because of the bad economy have made themselves ineligible for the money under the state’s new eligibility requirements.
Under those requirements, only low-income households in which everyone is age 60 and above or that have a disabled person receiving services through the state Division of Aging and Adult Services may apply through Jan. 30.
From Feb. 1 to March 31, other low-income residents may apply – if there’s any money left.
“If there’s anything left over, it won’t be a lot,” Hardin said. McDowell County has already given out the $273,000 in LIHEAP crisis money it has received and doesn’t anticipate receiving any more this year, he said.
It’s possible the county could receive a supplement, given the higher appropriation level that Congress and the president agreed upon. But McDowell County isn’t depending on it, he said.
“Unless additional funding is added, we’ve pretty much spent what we got until the next fiscal year,” Hardin said.
Burr supports change in funding formula
U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and U.S Rep. Heath Shuler did not answer Carolina Public Press’ request for comment on the program cuts.
As of Jan. 5, only U.S. Sen. Richard Burr’s office responded. In an e-mail, Burr’s communications director David Ward said: “Senator Burr supports a structural change in the LIHEAP formula so that North Carolina and other Southern states receive an equitable distribution of funding.
“Uncertainty in funding levels from year to year (due to) Congress’s reliance on stop-gap spending bills like the omnibus is confusing and can have a harmful impact on American families, as is the case in this situation. Congress has not passed an annual budget in three years now, and without one, it is impossible to ensure coherent, prioritized spending.”
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