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Thursday, Apr. 28, 2016

Big demand for winter energy assistance

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Photo by Richard irby Fulton County NADC Program Coordinator JoAnn Lowrie is up to her ears in paperwork this time of year. Lowrie tries to quickly process piles applications for Winter Heat Assistance, so that low income individuals and families can obtain fuel or pay electric bills to stay warm this winter.
It was a blustery 20 degrees when the Salem NADC (Northcentral Arkansas Development Council) office opened on Monday morning, Jan. 14. But the freezing weather did not deter a crowd of people from showing up to apply for winter heat assistance.

"Our office is allocated about $8,000 a week, and it was pretty much gone by 11 a.m.," Fulton County Coordinator JoAnn Lowrie said, a good indication many people need assistance paying fuel and utility bills and there is still a lot of winter to come.

The story was the same on Monday, Jan. 7, the start of the 2013 Winter Home Energy Assistance program at NADC's five offices.

"The first day in Stone County more than 150 people came in to apply for assistance," NADC Director Brad Cummings, said. "We had about 500 to 600 applicants in the entire five county area the first day (Jan. 7). It was busy all week."

NADC, which is based in Batesville, distributes federal LIHeap (Low Income Energy Assistance Program) funds to low income families who need help paying winter utility bills, with the elderly and disabled getting first priority.

NADC serves residents in Fulton, Izard, Sharp, Stone and Independence Counties.

In Fulton County, the NADC office on Pickren Street in Salem is supposed to take applications from 8-11 a.m. and 1-3 p.m. Monday through Wednesday.

But, during the first two weeks of the program, its weekly allocations have not held out that long.

"People who are familiar with the program know assistance is available on a first come, first served basis, so they get in here right away," Lowrie said.

The early, strong response has one benefit. Since offices temporarily shut down when their weekly allocation is gone, it helps them avoid a big backlog of applications.

"We still have money available but, after busy days when we take in a lot of applications, we take a break to process those applications to get payments out as soon as possible," Kathy Ruminer, NADC's Winter Home Energy Assistance Coordinator explained.

Under the program, assistance a family qualifies for is sent directly to the vendor who supplies their propane, wood or electricity.

Since the winter has been mild so far, winter heating bills have generally been lower, so the frenzied response was a little unexpected.

"Last winter, funds for the regular assistance program did not run out until April because weather was mild, but the recent Christmas snow storm and cold weather probably ratcheted bills up, so more families are needing help paying December bills," Cummings said.

Under the regular winter energy assistance program, two people with no monthly income can qualify for up to $218 to pay towards fuel or electricity bills. An individual or two person family with an income of $850 would receive $129.

Under the federal program, NADC received $389,833 for regular winter assistance for the five county area it serves. That was about a three percent cut over last year. The funds will be available until March 31, or until they run out.

"People need to come out to apply as soon as possible because when the money is gone, the program ends," Ruminer said.

Before the winter assistance program began, applications were mailed to those who receive food stamps, and are elderly and disabled. The pre-approved applicants still have to fill out the forms and return them to NADC offices, but completing them in advance should shorten their wait at an office.

Other low income families can inquire as to whether they qualify for assistance by visiting NADC offices.

Those who apply need to supply proof of income for the previous month, information on employment or proof of unemployment, proof of any child support received, proof of utility assistance if the applicant receives subsidized housing and a copy of an energy bill.

"You can look at this utility bill. I owe $214 this month, and only get $859 a month from Social Security. This program, which I can get help twice a year, is a big help," said one man who was applying for assistance at the Salem office.

Later in the winter, a second phase of the energy assistance program, a "crisis program," will be offered. It provides help to families who face immediate danger of being without heat -- running out of propane or receiving an electricity shut off notice.

"We have closed off our house for the winter and use just one room. We try to stretch our propane through the winter," said another man who qualifies for LIHEAP assistance. "In the crisis program, we should be able to get 100 or 150 gallons of propane, which is about the only time we can get any."

"The (energy assistance program) really helps those who need it most," Ruminer said. "I've had clients who said they had been having to choose between buying groceries for their family or paying the light bill to avoid being shut off."

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