Mild winter doesn’t spare emergency heating program

Anti-poverty advocates say an extremely mild winter couldn’t undo all the damage from deep federal budget cuts to Connecticut’s heating assistance program.

“In many ways this has been one of our most difficult years in trying to serve energy customers,” said Amos Smith, president of the Connecticut Association for Community Action.

“I recognize this was a somewhat miraculous winter,” said Shirley Bergert, an administrator with the Windham-based Connecticut Legal Services. “But we didn’t do any planning for massive spring shutoffs” of electric service.

LIHEAP, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, began a month late, with reduced funding for benefits and administration. The federally funded program is administered by the states, typically with help frpm private, nonprofit social service agencies.

Connecticut’s concerns about emergency heating for the winter of 2011-12 began one year ago when President Obama recommended slashing LIHEAP funding in half.

Based on that recommendation, the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy assumed Connecticut, which had received $98 million in 2010-11, would have $46.4 million to spend. It proposed limiting benefits only to needy households heated by deliverable fuels, such as oil. Malloy noted that households heated by electric and gas utilities are protected from having their utilities turned off in the winter.

State lawmakers raised the LIHEAP budget to $61.6 million, agreeing to commit state resources if actual federal funding came up short. The legislature’s plan provided reduced benefits to households served by deliverable fuels or by utilities, but utility customers weren’t eligible for a second round of emergency aid.

Bergert noted Friday at a meeting with state legislators that both the governor’s proposal and the legislature’s plan appear to run afoul of state law, which mandates a LIHEAP assistance plan “that does not discriminate against such households based on the type of energy used for heating.”

“It was clear attention wasn’t paid to the statute,” Rep. Vicki Nardello, D-Prospect, co-chairwoman of the Energy and Technology Committee, said.

Tom O’Brien, a public assistance consultant with the state Department of Social Services, said that because of surplus funding in the program, the agency is planning to issue supplemental grants of $200 to utility-served households that received assistance under the program.

That surplus stems not only from the mild winter and the scaled-back program rules, but also because the federal government ultimately put more into the proposal than Obama sought, but less than the prior year, and Connecticut received $79.7 million.

The state has about $19.6 million left over. And after 10 percent is set aside to help fund next winter’s program — the maximum allowed under federal LIHEAP rules — the remaining $11.9 million can be distributed to utility-heated households, DSS officials told Nardello’s committee.

But even with that additional aid, grants to utility-served clients dropped 32 percent this past winter, while relief for those served by deliverable fuels dropped just 27 percent.

Besides the inequity, another problem involves the late timing of this relief, Bergert said.

Utilities, such as Connecticut Light & Power Co. and Yankee Gas, offer a matching program that helps poor households that are delinquent on their bills reduce their debts. The utilities offer credits to help reduce this debt, provided these households are making regular payments to cover their current bills.

But Bergert noted that many needy households already have failed to stay on these plans, but might have been able to keep up with their bills had more relief been available sooner.

Linda Parke, project manager for economic development and community relations with Northeast Utilities — the parent company for CL&P and Yankee Gas — confirmed this problem.

Parke told lawmakers that only 32 percent of the 47,312 CL&P customers who are fell into arrears are keeping up with their current bills while also trying to pay off their debt. And just 18 percent of the 14,832 Yankee Gas customers with overdue bills are making progress eliminating their debt.

Though state legislators won’t resolve next winter’s LIHEAP budget and benefit levels until the fall, Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said it might make sense not to tighten levels too much, even if faced with more cutbacks in federal funding.

“It seems reasonable to not be as conservative,” he said, but quickly added that if Connecticut guesses wrong on aid from Capitol Hill, it would have to find the funds within the state’s budget.