More Help For Staying Warm New Money Will Help With The Fuel Bills

Posted: October 15, 2008

WITH ALL THE financial challenges average citizens are facing in these chaotic times, we can only hope that the unseasonably balmy weather of the last week holds for a while. A cold winter could break the bank for the average family; for a low-income family, it could be devastating.

That's why Gov. Rendell's announcement yesterday that the state will be offering extra heating help was welcome indeed. This year, $280 million is earmarked - and we mean that in a good way - for the the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

The money is used to provide one-time grants to help eligible homeowners keep warm; it also provides for crisis grants and for weatherization programs. This year's money is a big jump from last year's allocation of $180 million, and there are other changes that make this welcome news. For one thing, the cash grant will increase from $100 to $300, and crisis grants have been expanded from $300 to $800. (That holds for consumers of gas, which comprise most of the city, and other deliverable fuels, like oil.) Both of these are important changes, as anyone who has opened a gas bill or tried to fill an oil tank can attest.

The eligibility requirements will be expanded to include families at 210 percent of the federal poverty level. That means a family of four making $44,443 is now eligible.

Still, the big change that we have advocated has yet to materialize. The LIHEAP money that the governor announced yesterday is all federal money. In fact, it includes money that state officials held back from last year's allocation when they closed LIHEAP earlier than usual; they did this fearful that the feds could cut LIHEAP money. It also includes an additional federal allocations of $6.5 million.

But Pennsylvania is still one of the few cold-weather states that makes no separate state contribution to LIHEAP. And while Rendell held out the promise of $10 million additional to come from the state, that would be dependent on the state issuing energy fund bonds as part of the Alternative Energy Investment Fund. But with credit markets still frozen, these bonds can't even be issued, and no one knows when that situation will change.

Meanwhile, getting people to apply remains a challenge. The LIHEAP hot-line number is 1-866-857-7095. Screening and applications are also at www.compass.state.pa.us. *

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