The unusually mild winter might have flummoxed forecasters, frustrated ski buffs and worried those concerned about climate change, but so far, it’s been a critical break for poor families relying on a reduced pot of government assistance to pay for heat.

“It’s been a blessing that the weather has not been anywhere near like it was last [heating] season,” said Patricia Monroe-Walker, director of energy assistance for the anti-poverty agency Community Renewal Team. “Otherwise I don’t know what we would’ve done.”

For many low-income families and agencies that serve them, this season began with a big question: Would the heating aid program that more than 117,000 Connecticut households relied on last year provide enough dollars to get them through the winter?

Demand in the state has been growing, but federal funds for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, were slashed last year, leading state lawmakers to reduce the benefits each household could get. Early in the heating season, that produced panic for some clients. At one anti-poverty agency, the line of people applying for benefits stretched down the street, and some became scared when they learned they’d get less money than in the past.

Now, as spring approaches, people involved in the program say their initial apprehensions have not come to bear — at least, not yet.

In addition to the mild winter, the state has received more federal funds than anticipated, although LIHEAP funding remains more than 30 percent below last year’s level. Requests for aid have dropped; through last week, 67,576 applications had been approved, compared with 83,975 at the same time last year.

But that reflects in part a backlog in processing applications by the anti-poverty agencies that handle the program, which themselves faced cutbacks in the funds used to hire staff. Community Renewal Team has 2,500 households on a waiting list to apply for benefits, down from 3,000 earlier in the season. And while natural gas prices are down, heating oil costs are up.

Carolyn Lloyd, director of energy at Action for Bridgeport Community Development, estimated that a quarter of the 8,000 people her agency had seen use oil heat and had already gone through their share of funding for the winter. They’re now eligible for additional LIHEAP money that became available recently, but will it get them through the winter?

“I’ll tell you right out: No,” she said. “But it’ll help them.”

Among all heating oil customers, the volume sold this winter is down about 30 percent, said Eugene A. Guilford Jr., president of the Independent Connecticut Petroleum Association. The reduced consumption can be a major help in filling the gap in federal funds, he said.

But Guilford added that a key question is how many households qualify for aid. If significantly more receive help and the state has less to provide, he noted, that will still leave “a sizeable dollar hole” to be filled by the spring.

Federal funding crunch

Last winter, Connecticut used about $115 million in federal funds to provide energy assistance to 117,876 households, a record level.

This winter, the state has $79.5 million to give out.

President Obama last February recommended slashing LIHEAP from $5.1 billion to $2.5 billion, leading to a dispute among Connecticut officials about how to divvy up the state’s reduced share.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration, assuming the state would have $46.4 million to spend, proposed limiting benefits to households that use deliverable fuels, like oil, purchased from dealers, arguing that without enough assistance, people in those households could freeze. Households heated by utilities, by contrast, are protected from having their service turned off for nonpayment in the winter.

But in September, legislators adopted a different plan that would divide the money among all households that qualified regardless of heat source, giving each one fewer dollars. Their plan, adopted before Congress set a budget for LIHEAP, assumed that the state would get $61.6 million. It also assumed a 4 percent growth in the program’s caseload, budgeting for 122,127 households.

Ultimately, the federal government put $3.4 billion into the program, leaving Connecticut with more than either the Malloy administration or legislators expected. (On Monday, Obama recommended $3 billion for LIHEAP for the coming fiscal year, an increase from his previous proposal but a decrease from this year’s funding level.)

The Malloy administration and legislators agreed to use this year’s unexpected funds to supplement benefits. That includes an additional $140 payment to an estimated 55,610 utility-heated households, while 23,334 deliverable fuel-heated households are now eligible for an additional $400. And the program’s end date was extended from March 15 to May 1 and, for utility-heated customers at risk of losing service, May 15.

Intake backlogs

The increase in federal funds also means more money for the agencies that administer the program. Their funding is based on the state’s overall LIHEAP budget.

Community Renewal Team had 36 seasonal staff working on the program last winter, but only had 25 this season. With the additional federal funds now available, it’s in the process of adding another six or seven.

“It’s been a frustrating season,” Monroe-Walker said, noting that some customers become “very vocal” when learning they’ll get less aid than in the past. “It’s frustrating but it’s a relief that more moneys are out there so we’re able to do a little bit more. The weather has definitely been a blessing.”

Monroe-Walker monitors calls from United Way’s 2-1-1 Infoline, which gets calls from people needing energy help when the agency is closed. This year, the call volume hasn’t been anywhere near last season, a particularly bad winter. Monroe-Walker said she hopes people are conserving energy and know the aid money is limited.

The mild winter has allowed people to stretch their heat budgets further, Lloyd said, but higher oil prices have posed a challenge. She also predicted that some utility customers will have trouble paying their bills, and expects many to have their utilities shut off in the spring.

Lloyd’s agency is in the process of hiring another worker and plans to offer Saturday intake hours for applicants. So far this season, the agency has seen about 2,000 fewer applicants than this time last year — a change Lloyd attributed to having less money to do intake.

In Willimantic, the “widespread panic” at the beginning of the season has subsided, and people have become less afraid of not being able to heat their homes, said Shirley Riemann, director of social services for The Access Community Action Agency.

More people have applied who never applied in the past, she said, a sign of the bad economy. But outside of the usual procrastinators, she said, the agency hasn’t seen any panic-stricken people.

“It is as though everyone understands the conditions of the state and country and are trying their best to make do with what is available,” she said.

Riemann added that the additional money in the program should make it possible for most people to get through the winter comfortably.

Demand for Operation Fuel

Every time the weather pushes above freezing, Patricia Wrice thinks of it as another day people won’t have their furnaces at full blast.

Wrice is executive director of Operation Fuel, which provides non-LIHEAP assistance to households that don’t have other options. This year, the program has committed $805,000 to about 1,400 households, most of which already received and exhausted their LIHEAP benefits, she said. Nearly all have been oil customers. Because the price of oil has gone up this year, she said, the organization’s maximum benefit covers less than a half tank.

“We’re still seeing quite a demand,” Wrice said. Lately, there have been more requests from utility-heated households, particularly in the New Haven area. Wrice said she hopes Operation Fuel, which has about $2 million this year, will have enough funds to help people in May who are facing utility shut-offs if their bills don’t get paid.

“I don’t know what we would’ve done if it was a winter like last year,” she said. “I just dread to think about it because we’ve been busy all winter long, even with the mild winter.”

Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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