Fuel assistance demand up 10 percent
For many households in Hubbard County, the return of winter also means a return of financial struggles to keep the heat on. Mahube Community Council energy assistance director Nancy Cummings said this year brings an increase in both cost for hous...
For many households in Hubbard County, the return of winter also means a return of financial struggles to keep the heat on.
Mahube Community Council energy assistance director Nancy Cummings said this year brings an increase in both cost for household heating and demand for energy assistance.
In December, Congress passed a spending bill including $2.6 billion for low-income heating assistance programs, but the money has not yet been disbursed to states.
Even with the federal commitment, this year's colder winter means money for the agency's low-income heating assistance program may run out as soon as February.
Last heating season, Minnesota depleted its general heating assistance funds by April.
So far this season, demand for heating assistance is up about 10 percent in the region served by Mahube, said Cummings.
Mahube administers heating assistance for low-income households in Hubbard, Becker and Mahnomen counties.
Residents from the three counties compete for funds from a statewide pool.
Last season, Mahube handled 3,078 applications for heating assistance. So far this winter, the agency has processed about 2,470, with another 200 applications pending.
Cummings said she expects another 700 applications before the end of the heating season.
Mahube bases the amount of aid a household receives on a formula including household size, income and cost of heating the residence last year.
The grant pays for a portion of household energy costs, but a family is still responsible for a portion of the heating bill to encourage conservation, said Cummings.
Grants range from $100 to $1,200, depending on household need.
Applicants must meet income requirements to be eligible for a grant. A household of four can earn no more than $9,674 during the previous three months to qualify.
Cummings said families near the maximum limits typically only receive $100 to $200.
"The higher assistance levels are only going to those who are quite poor," said Cummings
On average, households received $670 in aid so far this season, up from $590 during the 2006-07 winter.
Cummings attributes the larger grants to the increase in fuel prices in the last year, especially for propane and fuel oil.
Hubbard County households also receive larger grants than in the Twin Cities due to a smaller average income, said Cummings.
According to Cummings, Hubbard County residents tend to favor fuel oil and propane as heat sources.
A December memo from the National Energy Assistance Director's Association estimated the purchasing power of the average heating assistance grant for propane dropped from 37.7 percent of annual cost in 2003 to 22.6 percent by 2007.
The average financial coverage of a grant for fuel oil shrank from 36.7 percent of the annual cost to 20.5 percent during the same period.
At current prices, the average home would need to spend $1,800 to heat with propane for the winter, or $1,950 to heat with fuel oil, said Cummings.
Mahube and Hubbard County Social Services each controls a small amount of emergency funds in the event a family faces an electricity or heating shutoff and cannot pay.
Social services financial assistance director Sandy Schmidt said the county distributes $13,500 per quarter as a family crisis fund. By Dec. 31, social services disbursed all but $200 of its 4th quarter family crisis funds.
If a family (a household with at least one child or a pregnant woman) receives a notice of eviction or a refusal to deliver further utilities, the county can contribute up to $800 once every 15 months.
In order to receive crisis funds, Schmidt said, the contribution must resolve the situation for the family beyond the delinquent bill.
Schmidt said the county changed guidelines in October of 2006 for crisis funds in anticipation of increased fuel prices.
Social services lowered the minimum waiting period between grants from 18 months to 15 months and raised the maximum grant by $300 in part to assist with heating demands, said Schmidt.
The county also administers emergency general assistance and Minnesota Supplemental Aid to resolve crises for disabled persons and other adults who meet income guidelines.
"There's still not everybody we can assist, but we feel we are serving a relatively large number of individuals," Schmidt said.
As to whether the crisis fund would last through the quarter ending March 31, Schmidt said much depends on the weather.