With federal heating assistance projected to drop and oil prices rising, advocates say CT officials should use state funds for heating aid.

Energy assistance advocates are renewing their call for Connecticut to tap its robust coffers to help keep poor families warm this winter.

The alarm intensified after a Hartford-based nonprofit closed its summer/fall energy assistance program one month early due to high demand.

With projected federal heating assistance projected to drop as much as $970 per household this winter — and with home heating oil prices rising steadily since mid-June — advocates say things could turn ugly this winter unless state officials end their reluctance to use state funds.

“The high demand at Operation Fuel shows that households are feeling a crunch across the board,” said Claire Coleman, the state’s consumer counsel and chairwoman of Connecticut’s Low Income Energy Advisory Board.

“The need in our state has grown to a tremendous degree,” said Gannon Long, chief programs officer for Operation Fuel, a Hartford-based energy assistance nonprofit. “In the past couple of years, we’ve seen a huge increase in demand across the board.”

Operation Fuel originally estimated its summer/fall program to help low-income households with gas, electric and other energy bills would run from Aug. 1 to Nov. 10, providing grants up to $500 to households earning 75% or less of the state median income. For a family of four, that’s no more than $99,888 per year.

But it closed the program effective Oct. 6 after serving about 3,900 households in two months, roughly the same number the 2022 summer/fall program had served — but spread over four months, Long said. And the caseload in each of the past two years is nearly double that of the 2,000 households served in the middle two seasons of 2021, she added.

Long and other advocates fear the surging demand that closed Operation Fuel’s summer/fall assistance program early is a symptom of a trend that will continue, or even get worse, this winter.

The coronavirus pandemic, inflation that reached a 40-year high in mid-2022, and high fuel prices have created a “perfect storm” of demand that could be seen this winter, she added.

The problem is that Operation Fuel, though a key part of Connecticut’s energy safety net, isn’t even the largest program. 

That distinction goes to Connecticut Energy Assistance Program, which has its own challenges.

Though technically overseen by the state Department of Social Services with assistance from regional community action agencies, the program chiefly distributes federal, not state, funding.

And state social services officials warned in early August that federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funding — commonly known as LIHEAP — had been rolled back to pre-pandemic levels. 

The $84.8 million in LIHEAP funds available for this winter’s Connecticut Energy Assistance Program not only is well below last year’ s $117 million mark but also is the lowest level since the winter of 2018-19.

But while roughly 81,500 households received assistance in 2018-19, according to the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, state social service officials say the number of households eligible to apply this winter tops 116,300 — up 43%.

That translates into a maximum benefit, for the poorest qualifying households, of $1,350. That’s down $970 from the $2,320 per household maximum benefit provided last winter, when demand for heating assistance shattered the 100,000-household mark after hovering between 73,000 and 92,000 homes over the previous four years.

Further complicating matters, weekly average home heating oil prices — which ranged between $1.73 and $2.99 per gallon during the winter and early spring of 2018-19 — haven’t dipped below $3.13 per gallon this calendar year, according to state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection records. And between mid-June — when they hit $3.13 — and late August, the last week the state has on file, the average has risen 30% to $4.06 per gallon.

Chris Herb, president of the Connecticut Energy Marketers Association and also a member of the Low Income Energy Advisory Board, said fuel distributors had been hopeful that prices would drop somewhat this winter.

But after the outbreak of war Saturday between Hamas and Israel, Herb said, nothing is certain.

If Wall Street becomes fearful that oil-producing nations are drawn into that conflict, it could drive prices further upward. 

“Volatility is going to be the rule of the day,” Herb added.

Meanwhile, Connecticut state finances are very stable, having just completed a sixth consecutive fiscal year finishing in the black.

The state has a record-setting $3.3 billion rainy day fund equal to 15% of the General Fund, and Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration is projecting the current fiscal year will close June 30 with $968 million left over, a surplus of more than 4%.

And while the state traditionally only has used federal funds for winter heating assistance, the advisory board has asked Lamont and lawmakers to match 20% of the LIHEAP funding. In other words, they’ve asked for $17 million, an amount equal to 1/57th of the projected surplus — 1/194th of its rainy day fund — onto the pile to help keep families warm.

To date, though, Lamont and his fellow Democrats in the legislature’s majority have taken a wait-and-see approach. 

The governor, a Greenwich businessman and fiscal moderate, has said the program is designed to help cover costs, and not to meet all needs.

And Democratic leaders also note that they expect to face heavy demands for additional funding next year for higher education, social services, nursing homes and other health care programs.

But the regular 2024 General Assembly session doesn’t open until Feb. 7. And by the time any state funds for winter heating might be appropriated, energy assistance advocates say, many families already will have been left in the cold.

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, one of the legislature’s most vocal advocates for using state funds to complement federal LIHEAP grants, said too many Democrats fail to recognize the long-lasting effects the pandemic and high inflation have had on low- and even many middle-income households.

“The post-pandemic Connecticut is not the same as the pre-pandemic Connecticut,” he said, adding that too many state officials mistakenly believe that “because it’s a Washington problem, it’s OK for Connecticut leaders to turn their backs on families that are cold.”

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.