With high heating oil prices, many families could have trouble paying the energy costs to heat their homes this winter, officials said. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration didn’t solve the entire financial puzzle Wednesday that heating assistance advocates have been working on for months.

But it connected a big piece.

Department of Social Services Commissioner Deidre Gifford announced the $30 million in state funds that legislators committed last week for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program will translate into more aid, on average, per household.

Many feared the extra funds earmarked for LIHEAP, already under pressure from skyrocketing demand and surging fuel prices, would be used only to serve a wider caseload.

And though Gifford offered limited details Wednesday, she said a revised benefits plan would be completed soon.

“This is a high priority for me, a high priority for the governor, a high priority for our staff,” she told the CT Mirror.

LIHEAP is a federal program, and Congress has allocated just $94 million for Connecticut this winter — about $40 million less than last year, even though fuel prices now are much higher.

Based on that federal allocation, state officials crafted a distribution plan in late August that offers a basic benefit of $250 to $600 per household, depending on income and other factors.

But families also may qualify for one to three additional “crisis” payments of $430 each to get through the winter.

Gifford said Wednesday the revised benefit schedule being developed would add an additional crisis payment, though she didn’t mention how much the extra payment would be or how many households might be eligible for it.

“We will do our best to distribute across as many income levels as possible,” she added.

Demand for help skyrockets, as do prices

Since the legislature committed $30 million in state funds to the $94 million LIHEAP budget in special session last week, consumer advocates have been anxiously waiting to learn if aid-per-household would rise. Or would payments remain fixed and the extra funds used only to serve a larger caseload?

Among those waiting have been the nine community action agencies that have been helping needy families apply in droves for LIHEAP assistance.

According to the state’s Low-Income Energy Advisory Board, poor households have submitted more than 58,900 applications for aid since Sept. 1, up 19.5% from last year at this time.

Agency staff returning to work on Monday turned on their computers to discover “dozens or, in some cases, hundreds of people who applied over the weekend” for heating assistance, said advisory board chairwoman Deb Polun.

The demand isn’t surprising given the fuel market, said Polun, who also is executive director of The Connecticut Association for Community Action.

The average retail price of home heating oil entered the last week of November at $4.83 per gallon, according to Department of Energy and Environmental Protection records, up 50% from one year ago at this time.

“Costs are high and the need is great this year,” Polun added after the meeting, when told about Gifford’s pledge to expand average heating assistance per household. “We are anxious to see how the increase will be implemented so that households can better plan for their energy needs this season.”

For many, though, fear remains that there simply isn’t enough government funding to meet unprecedented need.

The most any Connecticut household could receive under the August LIHEAP plan — through basic and crisis benefits — totals $1,890. And now the Lamont administration will announce a higher maximum benefit in the near future.

But there’s a long way to go.

That’s because the top level from the August plan is less than 40% of the $4,825 peak support the program offered last winter — when the LIHEAP program was significantly enhanced with emergency federal pandemic relief funding. 

And also because the $1,890 maximum is well below the $2,980 peak relief level granted two years ago, when the average retail price of home heating oil entering December was $2.14 per gallon — less than half what it is now.

GOP: State hasn’t gone far enough

Lamont and legislators stipulated the $30 million in state funds they reserved for LIHEAP won’t be spent unless Congress fails to authorize more energy aid during the lame-duck session this month or early in the new term.

Republican legislators argued that the governor and his fellow Democrats in the House and Senate majorities should have lifted the overall LIHEAP budget closer to $200 million.

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly of Stratford said Lamont administration officials need to increase energy aid per household significantly to stave off a winter heating crisis. 

“I would hope they would find a way, because the purpose here is to help people in need,” said Kelly, adding that the problem has been apparent since last summer when rising diesel fuel prices triggered a state tax hike on that fuel.

House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora of North Branford said legislators missed an opportunity last week to stave off a major winter heating crisis that may still come to pass. 

“All of the inflation has just hit people really hard, so I just don’t understand this wait-and-see approach,” he added.

Should larger energy assistance payments drain the LIHEAP budget, advocates note, the state easily could afford to add more resources. State finances are projected to finish the fiscal year next June 30 with a whopping $2.8 billion surplus equal to about 13% of the budget’s General Fund.

“Lower middle-income and middle-income households who never needed any assistance before are going to find themselves unable to heat their homes this winter,” said Nora Duncan, executive director of the Connecticut AARP.

And while state law bars electric utilities from shutting off service during the coldest months, she added, “if you don’t pay your home heating oil or propane delivery company the money you owe them, they’re not coming back for their next fill-up.”

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Keith M. PhaneufState Budget Reporter

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.