Demand increases energy assistance

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Energy Outreach Colorado plans to distribute more money than ever this year to agencies that help people keep their heat on during Colorado's coldest months.

Last week, the nonprofit organization distributed an additional $500,000 throughout the state, including $15,000 to agencies in Northwest Colorado. It was the third disbursement since October. The organization estimates it will distribute more than $5 million in energy assistance this year.

A sluggish economy and higher natural gas prices are contributing to a crisis throughout the state, according to Energy Outreach Colorado.

Loid Luscomb is the office manager at the Independent Life Center in Craig. The ILC received $5,500 from Energy Outreach Colorado to help clients in Craig. Most of the agencies' programs are aimed at helping disabled residents live more independently. But the utility assistance program is open to anyone.

Luscomb echoed Energy Outreach Colorado's concern that more people are requiring more assistance this year.

In 2003, the ILC helped 23 people avoid utility shut-offs or catch up on their utility bills. The average bill the ILC paid was $139.

During the current fiscal year, which began Nov. 1 2003, the average bill rose to $194.

"We ran out of money in December," Luscomb said. "(Energy Outreach Colorado) gave us supplemental money in January because it's normally the coldest month of the year."

The ILC's program is entirely separate from the Low-income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP), which gives money to families and individuals who meet certain poverty guidelines.

And since LEAP only gives money to pay gas bills, Luscomb said there is a great need for the money Energy Outreach Colorado provides. Elderly, disabled and other at-risk citizens may pay as much as 40 percent of their income for energy bills, according to figures Luscomb quoted from pending energy assistance legislation.

For some, it's a choice between paying for heat and paying for other necessities, Luscomb said.

But anyone can apply for energy assistance through the ILC.

"We've had people who make very good money," but nonetheless were struggling to pay their utility bills, Luscomb said. One woman who was struggling to make ends meet after she was involved in a car wreck got back on her feet after one month of energy assistance from the ILC, Luscomb said.

Usually, the clients show up when it's cold out, and when they're facing an imminent shut-off. Clients tell Luscomb, "my electricty got shut off yesterday," or "they're going to shut if off at four o'clock today," he said.

Luscomb negotiates with utility companies to arrange payment and keep the heat flowing. The goal is to try to buy at least 30 days of continued service, Luscomb said.

He also tries to give clients information that can help them lower their bills. He asks clients at what temperature their thermostats are set. He advises them they can save 3 percent on their bills for every degree the thermostat is lowered.

To qualify for assistance, recipients must bring a utility bill that is at least one day in arrears. Clients can only apply once per year.

For more information, contact Loid Luscomb at the Independent Life Center at 826-0833.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com

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