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November 2, 2011

Degrees of assistance

Are heat assistance funds for the poor fairly distributed?

Lisa Lewis was recovering from an emergency hysterectomy at Baptist Hospital East when her son called with news that sent her heart racing.

“Mom,” he said. “We got a brown bill. They’re gong to shut us off in seven days.”

Louisville Gas and Electric’s brown bill is essentially a disconnect notice. Lewis owed about $300, and she couldn’t pay it.

The single mother of two brings in about $1,200 a month. Multiple Sclerosis makes it hard to work. But her job experience is what soothed the initial panic.

Lewis works part time at Jeffersontown Area Ministries, a nonprofit that matches those in need with emergency food and money for utility bills. So she was familiar with the crisis funds available through the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a first stop for the poor when unpaid bills put them at risk of having their power shut off.

Crisis funds also help residents who live off the grid and are a couple days away from running out of heating fuel like propane, kerosene or wood. These clients are mostly rural.

Last year, 330,000 Kentucky households were assisted by LIHEAP.

The program runs from January until the end of March and serves families at 130 percent of the federal poverty level or below. That equates to a family of four making roughly $28,000 or below in annual income.

Lying in her hospital bed two years ago, Lewis knew crisis funds would keep her lights on. She relives that cycle of angst and relief sitting at her desk at work, where clients tell her they’re shivering at home, their power’s been cut off.

“You wouldn’t believe the number of people who come in here, who are off and they’re crying,” she says. “And, you know, if you’re off you need to pay the whole bill. And those crisis funds make a big world of difference.”

So it surprised Lewis and others at her workplace when they heard that last spring Jefferson County sent back $1.2 million in crisis funds to the Kentucky Cabinet of Health and Family Services. That agency then redistributed the money to other counties.

It didn’t add up. Lewis consistently met the roughly 15 percent of Jefferson County’s population living below the poverty line. And unemployment was teetering around 10 percent (and continues to).

Adding to the frustration for advocates and the Metro Department of Community Services and Revitalization, the local agency in charge of Metro’s LIHEAP funds, was the fact that Jefferson County had sent back money in prior years, as well.

A task force made up of advocates, Metro government officials and ministries started dissecting the state’s distribution of these federal dollars.

Cathy Hinko, executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, is on the task force. She’s upset that money is disappearing from those who need it and feels the state’s policies “deliberately siphon money” from urban to rural counties, based on the pattern of unused funds in Kentucky’s more populated regions.

“If it happens enough years and state officials don’t say, ‘What’s going on? How do we solve this?’ Then at some point they’re complicit and satisfied with what the outcome is,” Hinko says.

 

One of the state policies advocates take issue with involves the amount of crisis funds available to rural versus urban customers. For instance, LG&E metered customers in Metro can receive up to $400 in crisis LIHEAP funds for the winter. That cap may be cut to $250 this year.

Meanwhile, households that rely on propane, kerosene or other sources of fuel bought in bulk have a higher maximum assistance level. Someone in need of propane can obtain a voucher that will purchase 200 gallons, worth roughly $600.

“That’s true. That’s the way the program is set up,” says Michael Moynahan, energy programs director for the Kentucky Association for Community Action.

He oversees Kentucky’s 23 community action agencies that handle LIHEAP funds. Moynahan supports boosting the $400 cap for urban, metered customers. However, he says that in rural areas, like Eastern Kentucky, fuel distributors will often not deliver less than 200 gallons to households. Reducing that cap could leave families in the cold.

“That bulk fuel costs more to get to the consumer,” Moynahan says. “It’s (distributors) saying, ‘Well, we can’t go deliver 100 bucks of propane. It’s not worth it to us.’”

The other state policy the task force wants changed concerns deadlines. While rural residents can receive heat assistance into April, as long as they apply before the end of March, all help for urban customers ceases on March 31.

A lot of brown bills show up in April and May due to high bills accrued in the previous cold months, according to Lewis, with Jeffersontown Area Ministries, which receives funds separate from LIHEAP to assist the poor with high heating costs. Much of that money comes from LG&E. Marlon Cummings, executive director of Jeffersontown Areas Ministries, says this year that pot of money will go quickly. He’s seeing a surge in families struggling to make ends meet. From April to September, his agency provided $28,000 in utility assistance, a number that surprised him.

“Remember, we’re the wealthier end of Louisville,” Cummings says. It’s up to the Cabinet of Health and Family Services to change its LIHEAP distribution policies. No one from that agency responded to LEO’s questions by press time.

Moynahan is among those who would love to see the deadline for urban, metered energy users stretched into April.

“You never want to send money back if you’ve got people in need,” he says. “If that problem presents itself again, hopefully the cabinet could find a way … to extend the program for one agency.”

But this year, that idea may be moot. Though LIHEAP in Kentucky has received a fairly large pool of crisis dollars in the past, Congress may cut funding for the program in half. Kentucky agencies are bracing for a drop from $58 million last year to nearly $30 million in 2012.

Cuts have been threatened before, but ongoing rhetoric surrounding slashes to federal discretionary spending make matters seem dire. “This year, we’re expecting to be out of money by January,” Moynahan says, “if not earlier.”

 

LIHEAP assistance begins in Metro Louisville on Nov. 7. For more information, call 574-1157.