With demand this winter for heating assistance far outstripping that of recent years, and with a key nonprofit aid program on temporary hold, state legislators want to know how many households have exhausted their options.
More specifically, how many families can’t get any more funding from the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program or can’t afford to order enough fuel to convince a heating oil company to deliver?
Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, co-chairwomen of the Appropriations Committee, said that panel’s Human Services Subcommittee is scheduled to question DSS officials at 9:45 a.m. Monday at the state Capitol.
And while the chief purpose for that gathering is to cover the agency’s budget requests for the next two fiscal years, Walker said, that topic and winter heating assistance aren’t unrelated.
The committee leaders and other legislators, particularly among the General Assembly’s Democratic majority, have expressed concerns that state agency staff has been whittled down too much over the past 10-15 years, particularly in the human services field.
Many of these agencies are working “with two-thirds of a staff,” Walker added.
Tight staffing could hinder an agency’s ability to monitor a program, and legislators from both parties have been worried about winter heating assistance since before the autumn ended.
The chief source of funding for the state’s energy assistance effort is the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, commonly known as LIHEAP.
Connecticut has received about $106 million from LIHEAP for this winter and pooled it with $6 million in unused federal funds it carried forward from the winter of 2021-22.
To provide greater financial security for the program, the General Assembly and Gov. Ned Lamont agreed in special session Nov. 28 to commit $30 million in state funding, if needed, to supplement energy assistance.
Osten said that if many households remain in need, even after exhausting benefits, “we would always be happy to entertain coming back for more” state funding for the program.
Based on the resources committed for the program to date, DSS set the maximum aid a household could seek this winter at $2,320.
But some legislators, particularly minority Republicans in the Senate and House, have questioned whether that still would be enough.
It’s not even half of the $4,825 peak support the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program offered last winter. That 2021-22 program was an outlier, though, enhanced with emergency federal pandemic relief to help families adjusting to the expiration of enhanced federal unemployment benefits and tax credits, also ordered during the worst of the coronavirus outbreak.
But this winter’s $2,320 maximum aid level also is well below the $2,980 peak relief level granted two years ago.
Also, home heating oil prices were lower over the two prior winters than during the current one, according to Department of Energy and Environmental Protection records.
Prices between Oct. 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021, went as low as $1.96 per gallon and as high as $2.81.
Last winter, the range during this same time period was from $2.81 to $5.03 per gallon.
The low point this winter came on Feb. 20 when prices dipped below $4 per gallon — for the first time — at $3.94. The high mark came Nov. 7 at $5.93.
More than 40% of state energy assistance beneficiaries use heating oil.
The CT Mirror first asked the Department of Social Services on Feb. 3 how many households approved for energy assistance had exhausted their benefits. A spokeswoman for the department did not have the data readily available but was working to assemble the data with the nonprofit community action agencies that help most families apply for aid.
The department also did not provide that data Friday, one month later.
But even without a report from DSS on households that have exhausted benefits, there is other data that raises concerns.
Deb Polun, executive director of The Connecticut Association for Community Action, projected this week that the number of households approved for Connecticut Energy Assistance Program benefits would exceed 100,000.
The state had approved benefits for 70,172 households through Feb. 11, according to the most recent data from DSS. That’s up 23.3% from last winter’s pace.
“It shows that the need is still out there,” Polun said. “We’re still in a point where people are struggling to make ends meet.”
Further complicating matters, Operation Fuel, a nonprofit energy assistance program based in Hartford, announced last week it would pause its program until April 3 to catch up on a backlog of unprocessed assistance applications.
Operation Fuel also will reduce energy assistance grants from $1,000 to $500 per household. So far this program year, the nonprofit has provided nearly $6 million in energy assistance to more than 6,000 households.
“We are confident that we will provide [full] funding to all households who qualify for CEAP this winter season,” DSS Commissioner Andrea Barton-Reeves said Friday, adding she agrees with Polun’s projections that the overall caseload is likely to exceed 100,000 households.
And while the commissioner called Operation Fuel “a valuable part of the energy safety net,” she also encouraged families in need to reach out to local community action agencies to apply for help through the state’s assistance program.
Households can learn more about the energy assistance program at www.cafa.org or by calling the United Way’s Infoline at 2-1-1.
The pressing demand for heating assistance comes despite a relatively mild winter.
The entire month of January in Connecticut didn’t feature one day during which the high temperature was below freezing, said Darren Sweeney, meteorologist for NBC Connecticut in West Hartford. “And that is unprecedented.”
The average temperature this February was two degrees warmer than that of February 2022, he said. And mild air has been locked over Connecticut for much of the winter, delaying the first widespread snowfall until Feb. 28.
Polun added that community action agencies still are accepting applications for the state’s energy assistance programs, but households are urged to act soon.
The deadline to seek aid for deliverable fuels such as heating oil is March 15. Households can apply for help paying heating-related electric costs until May 31.