Metro-East News

No more help: Energy-bill assistance money runs out early in Madison County

Short of funds, the federal energy assistance program that helps thousands of metro-east families pay their energy bills has shut down taking applications early this year.

LIHEAP is funded through federal money, supplemented by the state and administered through the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Families who meet the requirements apply for assistance, which is then doled out until the funds run out.

Madison County stopped taking new applications for LIHEAP on March 23, according to county spokesman Jeff Wehling. There are still a handful of applications in the pipeline, he said, but no further applications can be taken; the money has run out. Last year, they were able to keep assisting households until May 30.

“There was less funding at the federal level this year,” Wehling said.

LIHEAP requires that households meet income eligibility standards; for example, a family of four with a combined income higher than $35,775 would not qualify, and would also be disqualified if the household’s rent is less than 30 percent of its income.

The program then divides applications into groups. Priority I applicants, who are allowed to apply first, are senior citizens and people with disabilities. Priority II applicants include families with children younger than 5. Then the grants are given out until funding is exhausted.

The minimum benefit is $100, and is paid directly to the utility company. Participants must make a good-faith effort to pay their energy bills. About 25 percent of the program’s budget may be spent on assistance with home-weatherization and energy-efficiency projects, according to the program plan filed by DCEO.

Wehling estimated that this year the program has helped 4,719 households in Madison County, with an average assistance of $518 — about $10 more on average than last year. “Every application has different needs,” he said.

But that’s significantly fewer households than last year, when Madison County assisted 6,456 households. “We’ve been able to do a lot more with less money, but it takes the funds,” Wehling said. “It’s unfortunate that there are so many people in need of assistance... As we emerge from the recession, things are picking up, but there are still plenty of people who are hurting.”

The status of St. Clair County’s LIHEAP program was not immediately available. However, many other counties statewide are shutting down early as well, according to news reports.

Dalitso Sulamoyo, president of the Illinois Association of Community Action Agencies, said a shortage of propane last year led many companies to ask for large deposits, which also helped drain funding, along with an increase in the number of people requiring assistance. “We are normally serving people until the end of May; this hasn’t happened since 2003,” Sulamoyo said.

Another challenge, Sulamoyo said, is that state law forbids utility companies such as Ameren from turning off services during the winter cold. That grace period ended on Wednesday, and now people who might have let the payments slip while protected from shutoffs will have to try to work something out with their utility company, he said.

Sulamoyo said LIHEAP is a health and safety issue as well as an economic one. “If you have a family in a house without heat, a senior citizen in a house without air conditioning, it’s a health and safety issue,” he said. “Families have resorted to dangerous methods of heating their homes.”

The LIHEAP program already faced problems: the initial proposal from Gov. Bruce Rauner cut all state funding for LIHEAP in next year’s budget, relying solely on federal dollars for the program. Sulamoyo said of the 420,000 households that currently receive LIHEAP, about 180,000 are funded through state money and would not receive assistance.

However, Sulamoyo said, in the most recent budget, LIHEAP was spared, and he hopes that will remain the case when the state legislature returns later this month. The state’s portion of LIHEAP comes from the utility companies’ revenues by state law, and that law would have to be changed for the money to be shifted into the general fund, he said. “I don’t see how the utilities will stand by for that because they are putting a meter tax on their customers for this purpose,” Sulamoyo said.

“There is a need for us to strengthen our safety net, and LIHEAP is a part of that,” Sulamoyo said. “If you look at senior citizens on fixed incomes, if we take LIHEAP away from them, they will have to choose between food, medication and the utility bill. It’s part of our safety net and we need to protect it.”