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Advocates make case for summer energy assistance

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Crews added insulation and serviced the furnace at Kevin Sanson's house Tuesday afternoon in West Lafayette.

It might seem an odd task as temperatures continue to climb into the 90s around Greater Lafayette this week. But the weatherization work done by Area IV Agency might help lower Sanson's air conditioning bills this summer, as well as prepare his home for more efficient heating this winter.

"They came in and did an air flow analysis, too," Sanson said. "They're going to add some wall vents so the air blows around better. That should help."

Area IV officials point to the weatherization effort as one program they've been able to increase in recent years even though direct energy bill assistance has dropped.

Congress eliminated millions of dollars in potential aid in the latest federal budget, forcing state lawmakers to scale back energy assistance programs. The agencies that distribute the money are worried that the situation could get worse next year because the White House is considering cutting the program in half.

Already this summer, Indiana's energy assistance program isn't taking applications from anyone who wasn't already involved in the program this past winter. Federal funding arrived so late that state officials gave $100 to people who received winter utility money. That was double the normal amount, but it left nothing for new applicants in many places.

Oklahoma ran out of money in its program in just three days. Illinois cut its cooling program funds to save it as heating assistance money for the winter ahead. When weighed against education and other budget needs, cooling assistance has been among the first items cut, and advocates for the poor say that could make this heat wave more dangerous.

Phone calls have been coming in almost daily to the Area IV Agency's energy assistance program offices from people looking for help. Often their utilities have already been disconnected due to failure to pay the bill.

Program coordinator Catherine Went said it's not easy to tell those callers that the agency can't offer funding assistance.

"We refer them to their township trustee, to the Salvation Army, to Lafayette Urban Ministry," Went said. "All of those places have different requirements and qualifications, so we can't guarantee them any help."

However, Area IV and similar agencies across Indiana have funds to assist homeowners with weatherization, given some federal stimulus money still in the coffer. Donna Collier, deputy director of community action programs with Area IV, said the agency has been able to assist more than twice as many homeowners as normal with weatherization efforts in the past 18 months.

Roughly $131.7 million is earmarked for Indiana in stimulus funds dedicated to weatherization projects. The second round in that funding came through to the state in August 2010 after the state completed work on at least 30 percent of its goal of weatherizing 20,155 homes by the end of the program in March 2012.

In 2010, Area IV crews weatherized 324 homes in Greater Lafayette. Collier said they've completed work on more than 100 additional houses this year.

"Any time you can cut your cooling and heating bills it's helpful," Sanson said.

The government provided $4.7 billion for low-income energy assistance for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, down $400 million from the year before. The money is primarily used by states to help with heating bills in winter, which lasts longer and generates higher utility bills. Area IV distributed roughly $1.6 million to 4,280 households during this past winter, from October 2010 to May 15, 2011. This summer, cooling assistance of $419,000 was paid out to 4,181 households.

The reason the majority of the funding is reserved for winter is because the Midwest's long, cold winters present a threat for people of limited means.

"But there's no less risk in being too hot than in being too cold," Went said. "The summer heat isn't usually this bad, though."

Many in social service roles lament the lack of funding available to provide help during the summer -- especially for elderly people and those with medical conditions that could be fatal in high heat. Emergency room visits were up, according to public health officials, mainly because of people suffering from heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

"Energy assistance helps vulnerable people. If they can't turn their air conditioner on because they're afraid to pay the bill, there's documented cases of people dying over time. It's totally preventable," said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, a group of state officials who give out the federal money.

In the Lafayette area, several agencies opened their doors as cooling centers last week when heat indexes rose well above 100 degrees each day. Area IV offered free box fans to residents who needed them. When the first round went out the doors quickly, the agency started collecting donations and used fans to continue the giveaway.

Both Lowe's and Home Depot chipped in on the effort, Collier said, along with private citizens who donated about $600. Fans obtained through those efforts will be available at Area IV this week, but residents need to call first to check on the supply.

Since the recession began, requests for heating and cooling assistance have skyrocketed, with 8.9 million households nationwide receiving federal help this year. That's up from 5.8 million in 2008-09.

Meanwhile the funding situation could get worse next year. President Barack Obama has proposed cutting funding for the program to $2.5 billion.

U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Indianapolis, opposes the president's budget plan but agrees that cuts are needed in the energy assistance program.

"Rep. Rokita is working to return spending across the board to 2008 levels," said spokesman Timothy Edson. "The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is not being singled out. Cutting spending will strengthen the economy and help put people back to work, which will reduce the number of Americans depending on this and other government programs."

States are worried. A group of governors plans to send a letter to Congress asking lawmakers to maintain the federal funding at current levels next year.

"It seems like the wrong time to be cutting energy assistance," Wolfe said. "People need help getting by. There are a lot of people right on the edge. To cut them now is cruel."

Dorothy Schneider