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Utility bill aid could be slashed.

Byline: Mat Wolf The Register-Guard

Penny-pinching by Congress this winter may put the squeeze on low-income Lane County residents who depend on financial help from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

The 2010 and 2011 federal budgets each allocated $5.1 billion nationwide to the home-heating assistance effort.

But the federal Department of Health and Human Services for this winter is asking Congress for only slightly more than $2.5 billion for the current federal fiscal year, and Lane County heating-aid coordinators are all but convinced that this spells a big cut in the amount of aid they will be able to hand out.

Typically, the program gives about $300 worth of heating assistance per winter to a qualifying household.

Lane County's LIHEAP coordinator, Mary Ellen Bennett, said she expects her program's budget to be slashed roughly in half this winter.

She said LIHEAP provided $3.1 million in utility bill assistance to 10,177 households in Lane County last winter. But that number may drop this coming winter. Recipients can register beginning Tuesday.

To qualify, a household's gross monthly income must be at or less than 60 percent of Oregon's median income.

A one-person household can have a gross monthly income as high as $1,874 and qualify. A four-person household can have a total gross monthly income of $3,604 and qualify.

The assistance, typically in the form of a utility credit, is distributed through community outreach programs and charities, such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County or the Campbell Center.

Applicants sign up on a first-come, first-served basis. Given the anticipated sharp drop in funding, as many as half of those who got help last winter may not be so lucky this year.

"Last year, even when we had an extra ordinarily large amount of money, the wait list closed in like a month," said Roxann O'Brien, director of social services for St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County.

The elderly and disabled would have priority making the list this year, she said.

In addition to the amount of aid decreasing, utility bills in Lane County have been going up.

However, some utilities will be offering more low-income energy assistance separately from the L IHEAP program.

Lance Robertson, Eugene Water & Electric Board public affairs manager, said EWEB would make available $2.7 million this winter in its limited-income assistance program.

However, EWEB also voted to increase its electric rates 5 percent at the beginning of October. Robertson said the increase was necessary because the Bonne ville Power Administration is increasing the rate it charges wholesale customers, such as EWEB, for the electricity that BPA generates.

The Springfield Utility Board has not decided whether to raise its rates in 2012, SUB spokeswoman Meredith Clark said. But in light of potential LIHEAP cuts, SUB will increase funding for its low-income assistance effort Project Share, which provided $117,000 worth of subsidies to 783 households last winter.

Clark said no final decision has been made, but SUB most likely would increase that amount to about $177,000 in the event of a steep LIHEAP cut.

Bennett said individual customers ultimately bear the responsibility in making sure they can pay their power bill.

"People need to be really careful about managing their electric bill and not depending on LIHEAP," Bennett said. "They should not expect to have LIHEAP bail them out."

WHERE TO APPLY FOR HEATING COST ASSISTANCE

Senior citizens ages 60 and older may contact one of the following senior centers: Celeste Campbell Center, 541-682-5354; Willamalane Adult Activity Center in Springfield, 541-736-4406; Cottage Grove Senior Connections, 541-682-7810; Florence Senior Connections, 541-902-9430, Ext. 7835; Oakridge Senior Connections, 541-782-4726; Veneta Senior Connections, 541-935-2262; Junction City Senior Connections, 541-998-8445.

Nonsenior households, including those with a disabled person, may contact one of the following agencies: St. Vincent de Paul in Eugene, 541-461-8794; Catholic Community Services in Springfield, 541-747-8349; Community Sharing in Cottage Grove; 541-942-6492; Siuslaw Outreach Services in Florence, 541-997-2816; St. Vincent de Paul in Oakridge, 541-782-3590.

For more information: Call the recorded LIHEAP information line at 541-682-3835
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Title Annotation:Local News; Cuts in the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program are to blame
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 31, 2011
Words:680
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