Tens of thousands get aid for utilities

934 households approved for the Winter Crisis Program, up from 745 in the year-earlier period.
TNS Regional News
Jan 24, 2014

 

When the temperature plummets, heating bills soar.

That seasonal equation is why area agencies are reminding residents help is available to keep homes warm when they face utility shutoffs or low fuel supplies.

Economic Opportunity Planning Association of Greater Toledo Inc. in Lucas County and WSOS Community Action Commission, which serves Wood, Ottawa, Sandusky, and Seneca counties, are among groups that offer federal funds to help pay heating bills in emergencies.

From Nov. 1 through Dec. 31, WSOS approved 934 households for the Winter Crisis Program of the Home Energy Assistance Program. That’s up from 745 in the year-earlier period.

Brian Taylor, WSOS basic needs specialist, attributed the increase to this winter’s temperatures.

“The cold weather is causing it to jump. Normally we see the month of November is real busy, and December slows down a little bit,” he said. “We haven’t seen any slowdown.”

So far in January, Toledo’s average temperature has been 18.4 — seven degrees cooler than the month’s normal average, according to the National Weather Service in Cleveland.

December also brought colder-than-normal readings. In Toledo, the month’s average temperature was 27.6, or 2.1 degrees lower than normal.

Temperatures are expected to remain well below freezing in coming days, with a high today in Toledo expected to be near 14.

Statewide, the number of those receiving crisis heat assistance so far is lower than last year, but officials expect requests to pick up as cold weather continues.

About 82,000 Ohio households were served through the program so far this season, compared to 91,000 at this point a year ago, said Penny Martin, a spokesman for the Ohio Development Services Agency.

She attributes the dip to severe weather that prevented some from scheduling in-person interviews required to receive help as well as a change to the program’s income eligibility requirements.

Income limits dropped from 200 percent of the federal poverty level to 175 percent this year because of the end of funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Ms. Martin said.

Last year, a family of four making up to $46,100 a year could qualify for help. This year, that same family can make up to $41,213 annually or about $10,303 over the past three months. The state estimates the income change means 3,000 to 4,000 households that would have been eligible for the crisis program last year can’t get help this year. Still, Ms. Martin expects the weather will result in a high demand for the program, which runs through March 31.

EOPA helped about 26,000 Lucas County families last year with heating aid through the crisis program and the Percentage of Income Payment Plan Plus, a billing option that allows eligible residents to pay a fixed percent of their income to regulated gas and electric companies.

Eligible residents in Lucas County and the WSOS service area can receive up to $175 to cover bills from regulated utilities. The crisis program also provides help for residents who heat with other sources such as wood and propane. The funds can be received once per winter.

EOPA scheduled additional hours and locations to meet with residents seeking heating bill help, said Tomeka Rushing, director of emergency assistance.

She said the number of residents who received help from the program so far is down from last winter because of the same reasons the state agency cited. EOPA has $1.5 million to distribute through the crisis program, down from $1.8 million last year because of the new income limits.

Residents may be eligible for additional heat bill resources and programs. EOPA coordinates with area nonprofit agencies which may provide help and refers those eligible to a fuel fund set up by Columbia Gas of Ohio.

“We just want to encourage our community that the funds are there that they need,” Ms. Rushing said. “Please don’t sit at home and be in a crisis situation.”

———

By Vanessa McCray - The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (MCT)

©2014 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)

Visit The Blade (Toledo, Ohio) at www.toledoblade.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services