While state officials struggle to fund winter heating assistance, the gap between what Connecticut’s poorest families need to heat their homes, and what they can actually afford, continues to grow, a new study reported Thursday.

Operation Fuel, a private, nonprofit agency that expects to help more than 7,000 households keep warm this winter, reported that annual heating costs for Connecticut’s 231,000 poorest families averaged $2,200 more last year than what they could afford.

And Boston economist Roger Colton, who prepared the study, said the problem is expanding faster than both public and private relief efforts can address. The gap “is tremendous, it’s crushing,” Colton said, adding that just 12 months ago, it averaged $2,100 per household.

The study focuses primarily on families earning 185 percent of the federal poverty level or less each year. For a family of three, an annual income of $18,350 would equal the poverty level and $33,948 would match the 185 percent mark.

A typical household spends 30 percent of its annual income on shelter costs, Colton said, adding that one-fifth of this, or 6 percent of the total, is directed to electric or other heat-related utility costs.

Energy costs for families at 185 percent of the poverty level are closer to 12 percent of earnings. For those at the poverty level, it can take between one-third and one-half of their income to cover energy bills.

But at that point, Colton said, other choices are being made.

A survey of low-income households conducted by the National Energy Assistance Directors Association found:

  • 17 percent of respondents had their heat disconnected or discontinued because of inability to pay.
  • 30 percent chose not to fill medical prescriptions to pay their energy bills.
  • And 38 percent went without medical or dental care to cover energy costs.

“People get sick, people go hungry and people die because they cannot afford to pay their home energy bills,” Colton said.

Operation Fuel’s report comes as state officials hold their collective breath, hoping the outlook for federal funding to help solve this problem will improve.

The primary source of winter heating aid comes from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, commonly called LIHEAP.

Congress hasn’t yet set the funding level for LIHEAP this season, but Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration projected that the state would get $46.4 million. The number is close to what the state would receive under a recommendation by President Obama that would slash the program’s funding. Last year, the state ran the program with $115 million in federal funds.

State legislators voted in late September to guarantee the program has at least $61.6 million in funding. This would require the state to add $15 million of its own funding if Congress ultimately adopts the president’s plan.

Last year, nearly 118,000 households in the state received money through LIHEAP. Malloy’s plan for this winter would have provided funds to about 37,000 households. Lawmakers replaced it with a plan to serve about 122,000 households but at reduced benefit levels.

But Colton said the LIHEAP program is “grossly insufficient” to meet the need.

Citing the study’s conclusions that more than 231,000 families need another $2,200 to meet their energy bills, Colton said that represents a statewide gap of $505 million –nearly five times the value of last year’s LIHEAP budget.

Operation Fuel, which is authorized under state law to solicit charitable contributions by asking electric customers to add $1 to their monthly utility payment, supplements LIHEAP, primarily serving families whose incomes barely exceed the federal program’s limits.

Operation Fuel Executive Director Patricia Wrice said her group was able to provide $1.7 million in total to about 5,000 households last winter, and hopes to provide another $3 million this winter to more than 7,000 households.

“You can see it’s not really a pretty picture,” Wrice said, adding that she hopes state officials will commit more funds, particularly if federal aid drops significantly. “I don’t know where folks will go.”

State House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, who is running for Congress in the 5th District, attended Thursday’s news conference when the study was unveiled.

And while Donovan said he believes it is the federal government’s responsibility to step up with additional funds, when pressed, he added that if Capitol Hill doesn’t respond, state officials must.

“If that’s not going to happen, we’ve got to find the resources,” he said. “We’ve got to take care of the people in our state.”

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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