As LIHEAP shrinks, Operation Fuel director worries, seeks help

Funding for LIHEAP, a federal energy assistance program, is on the chopping block this year. That’s got one Connecticut nonprofit agency — that works to keep low-income people warm all winter — on edge.

“There’s no way, realistically, that a privately funded operation like ours could ever make up the shortfall in LIHEAP funding,” said Patricia Wrice, executive director of Bloomfield-based Operation Fuel. “The demand for help with heating costs this year is just going to be too high.”

Operation Fuel steps in where LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) funds run dry, offering an additional safety net for people who can’t afford to pay for heat or electricity. But budget issues on a national scale have the organization worried — a shortfall in federal funding for LIHEAP means more people will turn to them for help, Wrice said.

“Worse case scenario is that the president’s budget passes and the funds are cut in half,” Wrice said.

President Obama has recommended cutting LIHEAP funding in fiscal year 2012 from $5.1 billion to $2.5 billion. If Congress enacts that proposal, it would translate to a $57 million aid cut — bringing the total down to $41 million — for Connecticut’s energy assistance program.

Last year, Operation Fuel provided $1.7 million in emergency energy assistance to more than 5,000 households in the state. It had to shut down the program in mid-February when it ran out of funds.

“That’s the first time that’s ever happened to us, and we’ve been around for 34 years,” she said. “We’re expecting this year will be worse.”

Wrice is anticipating increased demand for assistance given the slow economy, high unemployment rates and high energy costs. Operation Fuel was planning to open up its assistance program Jan. 1, as always, but ended up starting the program Nov. 14.

“We thought about how at risk people are and we want to be able to protect them,” she said.

The organization has just started its annual fundraising campaign. “We’re hoping private donations will help fill in the gaps.” 

Wrice also said that Operation Fuel has and will continue to advocate for state intervention.

Last year, according to a report commissioned by Operation Fuel, Connecticut households at or below 185% of the federal poverty level spent $2,100 more than they could afford on energy costs. That’s called the home energy affordability gap. The report also details the “paid-but-unaffordable bill” phenomenon — where low-income households can pay their energy bills only by cutting in to their food, education, health and housing budgets. The total home energy affordability gap for Connecticut was $480 million last year.

LIHEAP served about 117,000 Connecticut homes in fiscal year 2011. And according to a Nov. 1 report by the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, the average LIHEAP benefit covers about half the cost of home heating. The same study found that of surveyed LIHEAP recipients, 23 percent said they kept their homes at an unsafe or unhealthy temperature in order to afford their energy bills, and 25 percent reported going without food for at least one day to keep up on payments.

“We will do what we can, but there needs to be long-term solutions here,” she said. “People are really being held hostage to LIHEAP funding.”