Heating costs, rising concerns
MERIDEN — As temperatures outside have rapidly dropped over the past week, residents, elected officials, energy providers and advocates have renewed concern about whether the region’s most vulnerable residents will be able to afford to keep their house warm this winter.
These concerns stem from the simple fact that home heating costs are skyrocketing. As of Nov. 14, home heating oil prices in Connecticut averaged about $5.64 a gallon, according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. A year earlier, the average cost of heating oil was $3.28 a gallon, the agency reported. Thus, in the space of one year, heating oil costs have increased by nearly 72%.
The amount of federal funding the state has received to date to administer the low-income home energy assistance program, called LIHEAP, this winter now stands at approximately $99 million, following Thursday’s announcement by Governor Ned Lamont that the state’s federal delegation had secured $19 million in additional funding for the state through this program.
The state’s Department of Human Services has developed a tiered plan to distribute the funds based on residents’ income and the previous funding level of $79 million. This plan would provide $550 of heating oil to non-vulnerable residents — and $600 to vulnerable residents — whose incomes are at or below federal poverty levels. The plan takes into account an expected caseload of 96,600 residents statewide. The plan includes Crisis Assistance deliveries, with the first delivery being $430.
The funding amounts to be distributed under this plan are far lower than the amounts the state distributed to LIHEAP participants a year earlier — when officials supplemented state LIHEAP funds with federal relief funds against coronaviruses.
State Representative Mary Mushinsky said she had been in contact with the state Office of Fiscal Analysis and contacted the office of U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro. Mushinsky noted that with the influx of federal relief funds, the state’s total LIHEAP funds in 2021 are about $120 million.
“So we have $21 million less than in the pandemic year and there is an increase in the price of fuel,” Mushinsky said, adding that the number of applicants to the program is expected to increase by 5%.
Mushinsky said the state typically receives an additional LIHEAP payment from the federal government in January. She doesn’t expect that to change even with the change in control of the party in Congress that will come in January.
“I don’t think either side will want states to run out of LIHEAP money,” Mushinsky said.
“Doing the math you can see there is more spending on the price of fuel and then a little less money in 2021 – that means we won’t have enough. We’re going to run out of funding” , Mushinsky said.
Funding is distributed to eligible residents through community action organizations, such as New Opportunities Inc., which serves 60 communities, including Meriden, Waterbury and Torrington.
Joanne Balaschak, director of energy programs at New Opportunities, noted that last year residents who qualified for benefits could receive up to $3,000 worth of heating oil. This year, those same residents might only receive $730 in benefits, taking into account their initial deliveries and their crisis deliveries, Balashack noted.
“It’s going to be amazing,” Balaschak said.
Deliveries began on November 1.
But Balaschak fears some neediest residents, including the elderly and people with disabilities, will run out of fuel by Thanksgiving.
“It’s very scary,” she said.
Bracing for increased need
Gannon Long is director of policy and public affairs for another program, Operation Fuel, which provides year-round energy and utility assistance to state residents, including those who may not be eligible for LIHEAP support.
Long said that in 2021, the organization served more than 9,000 households. This year, Operation Fuel is on track to handle even more support requests. In the summer alone, the agency served 4,500 residents — an unprecedented number, Long said. The agency is preparing for a winter with potentially bigger numbers.
Long noted that even in years less affected by inflation and soaring heating costs, LIHEAP funding has been insufficient, not just in Connecticut, but nationwide.
“In a typical year, LIHEAP is enough to cover 25% of people who are actually entitled to it. That’s a really low percentage,” Long said. “Operation Fuel and other advocates had long pointed out that this was not enough.
“At the end of the day, I hope the governor and the legislature are able to do whatever helps the most vulnerable residents,” Long said. “…The most important thing is that people have warmth this winter.”
Chris Herb, president of the Connecticut Energy Marketers Association, a trade group of statewide oil and gas marketers, shares that concern. Herb said the combination of rising costs and insufficient funding “is going to put more pressure on customers who are already under economic pressure to pay those bills.”
Herb said his group had advocated for Congress to authorize additional funding to meet the costs of inflation.
“It’s important for Congress to step up and fill this void that’s going to happen,” Herb said.
The gap will affect companies that distribute heating oil. Herb said there are about 600 fuel oil dealers across the state, and the majority of them are small, family-owned businesses.
“It puts a lot of pressure on them,” Herb said. “We are the ones ultimately responsible for ensuring that the health and safety of residents is met.”
Herb said that unlike other federal assistance programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, where retailers are fully compensated for the food items they supply, fuel oil distributors who participate in these programs “should suffer significant reductions”.
“We’re not paid full price, like food aid,” Herb said.
Herb urged residents concerned about their ability to afford to heat their homes to explore any assistance programs available. Operation Fuel is another assistance program they may be eligible for.
“Don’t give up,” Herb said.
Awaiting further action from Congress
US Senator Richard Blumenthal’s office, in response to a reporter’s question, released a statement regarding LIHEAP funds.
“My office has heard from many constituents concerned about heating oil costs and the upcoming winter,” Blumenthal said. “While Connecticut received $107.8 million for LIHEAP, the dramatically increased number of applicants combined with high oil and natural gas prices means that there may not be enough funds to help all those in need. need. I will continue to fight in Congress to bring more funding back to Connecticut because families should never have to choose between putting food on the table or heating their homes.
Likewise, State Rep. Michael Quinn said he heard residents’ concerns about the cost of heating their homes during the last election cycle.
“If Congress doesn’t act appropriately, I think we’re prepared to push and fight for additional state funding in January,” Quinn said. “…We will do everything we can to solve this problem.”
Governor Lamont, in his announcement, said that in the coming days, his office will convene a special session of the General Assembly to pass legislation focused on helping Connecticut residents, “including ensuring that our energy assistance program is adequately funded for at least last year’s level, so assistance is available for electricity and heating oil costs.
The announcement drew criticism from the state’s largest electric utility providers, which Lamont said are “making historic profits at the same time electricity generation rates are rising and customers are experiencing economic challenges, and I call on UI and Eversource to come to the table with solutions that recognize that their investors and leaders can and should support customers as we work together to find long-term solutions that steer us away from volatility global fossil fuel markets.
The announcement comes a bit too late for lawmakers like State Rep. Vincent Candelora of North Branford, the House Republican Minority Leader, who said his caucus has been advocating since August to ensure programs managed by the state, such as heating assistance, are fully funded. He noted that the number of households expected to use these funds is expected to increase by 5%.
“The other thing we’re advocating for is increasing income eligibility,” Candelora said, noting that struggling households don’t just include those whose incomes meet federal poverty guidelines.
Candelora said his party’s caucus was accused of being political for raising concerns at the time when he said Democrats rejected them.
“But if we had tackled it in August, we would be in a very different position now,” Candelora said.
State Representative Hilda Santiago de Meriden said she has received concerns from her constituents about heating costs and rising electricity rates.
Santiago said lawmakers would seek to pour more money into heating aid during the special session.
Santiago said any residents concerned about their heating costs should contact New Opportunities and apply for Operation Fuel.
“We might have invested more in Operation Fuel,” Santiago said, adding, “If it looks like by January or so the funds are running out, we can go back to the legislature, especially for the ‘Operation Fuel’.