Economy draining energy assistance program

Need for financial assistance increasing as unemployment rises; late winter has delayed applications

Economic recession, rising unemployment and decreasing wages are offsetting the nearly 50 percent decrease in natural gas prices Northwest Colorado customers saw in September. Nearly every Northwest Colorado agency that gives energy assistance funds is out of money and more requests are coming in daily, despite lower heating bills.

"There really has been a need this year," said Peggy Satterwhite, who handles energy assistance applications for the Community Budget Center (CBC) in Craig. "They didn't hit us until late because of that warm weather."

The Community Budget Center received a $5,000 grant from the Colorado Energy Assistance Foundation (CEAF). The grant is dispersed in three installments of $1,667. Of the first installment, paid in November, $125 remains. The second installment is not expected until May, and the third won't come until September.

The CBC has been able to help nine applicants with their energy bills.

"The need isn't as great per person, but more people are applying," Satterwhite said. "There are just so many in need. We just try to help everyone we can. Most of the lower income people work at minimum wage jobs. You can't pay a gas bill on minimum wage."

The Colorado Energy Assistance Foundation also gave Craig's Independent Life Center $3,000. The first $1,000 installment has been distributed and the Independent Life Center (ILC) is borrowing against the promised May installment to meet the growing need.

"We certainly will go ahead and spend the next installment and trust that the foundation will reimburse us in May like they said they would," said Evelyn Tileston, ILC director. "It's a wonderful use of money. People are in desperate situations."

According to Karen Brown, executive director of CEAF, the foundation distributes the funds in cycles so there is money available year around for energy assistance.

"If we give it all at one time, agencies can give it away in two weeks," she said. "This is the first time we've offered a full-time program. We used to only give money when LEAP didn't."

The ILC was able to approve six applications with the first round of funding from CEAF.

According to Jim Chappell, manager of consumer accounts for Yampa Valley Electric Association, 11 percent of the company's customers receive delinquency notices each month. Eight percent are reminded by an automatic call and 6 percent face disconnection after a personal phone call is made requesting payment.

"We are seeing an increase in the number of delinquencies," Chappell said, "and an increase in the number of phone calls we're making. We're not really seeing a dramatic increase in shut-offs."

Satterwhite said she's seen a surge in applications from two-parent families, a change from the single parents who usually seek assistance.

The Community Budget Center also contributes a portion of its profits to energy assistance grants. Last year, the CBC contributed $4007.92 of its funds toward energy assistance grants. Including the grant from the CEAF, $6,282.92 was available to the community, which was used to assist 27 applicants.

The funds are used to ensure applicants get at least 30 more days of uninterrupted service. They can be used for any type of heating material: Propane, natural gas, electric heat, firewood or heating oil.

CEAF funds are not given based on income, but applicants must show a need for the money. An unexpected expense, recent job loss or emergency may be all a family needs to qualify for the assistance.

"The criteria is that the person shows us they have made attempts to pay their bill," Satterwhite said. "There's just so many things we look at. Basically, they just have to show us the need, and we'll try to help."

Most applicants do not meet the low income requirements set in place by the federal Low-income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP), which is why CEAF set up the fund in the first place.

"There are so many people who don't fit the income criteria of LEAP or who don't want welfare because it's welfare," said Brown. "Unemployment, layoffs and salary reductions have hit harder this year, whereas last year, it was the price of gas."

Moffat County's unemployment rate remains steady at 4.7 percent, which is even with the state average.

"We have lots of unemployed," said Kandi Kropinak with the Colorado Workforce Center. "We're feeling some pinch, and this time of year is the hardest."

There are still funds available from the federally-funded LEAP program.

This year, the Moffat County Department of Social Services budgeted to spend $1,105,000 in energy assistance program benefits. Department Director Marie Peer said the amount was based on last year's need, when natural gas prices were nearly 50 percent higher. Though she doesn't believe that amount will be needed, she thinks the demand for assistance will be higher than it has been in years past. For 2001, the department budgeted $203,000 for the energy assistance program. Actual expenditures were closer to $636,000.

According to Brown, nationwide, LEAP is 33 percent ahead of its expenditures for last year.

The Department of Social Services has received 356 LEAP applications since the program's start in November.

"It varies when people apply," Peer said. "Last year, people jumped in early because of the increase in rates."

LEAP benefits are based on income. The maximum monthly income allowed for a family of four to qualify for the program is $2,721. A change in policy effective this year is that the program is now based on income only. Assets are no longer calculated into the approval process.

LEAP pays between $100 and $700 to eligible applicants per season, which runs from Nov. 1 to April 30. The benefit amount is based on a formula which takes income and heating costs into account.

Funds from the Community Budget Center and the Independent Life Center can be used to pay for any heat source, LEAP funds can only be used to pay for a primary heat source. Meaning, the money cannot be used to continue electric service because it provides the power to distribute natural gas heat.

LEAP funds are still available and no appointment is needed to pick up an application. Peer encourages anyone in need of assistance to stop by the Department of Social Services, located at 595 Breeze St.

The Colorado Energy Assistance Foundation also offers funds for conservation and weatherization.

"We just try to make sure homes are energy efficient so that that money isn't going out the window," Brown said.

Residents can log on to www.ceaf.org for more information or for an application.

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