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Energy assistance program aids local families

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Collene Waltz waited in the lobby of the Panhandle Community Services hoping for help to keep her home warm during the cold winter.

“The energy assistance program kept my electricity on,” Waltz, 41, of Amarillo.

Waltz said she recently moved back to Amarillo and is waiting to be rehired by a previous employer. In the meantime, she’s working a minimum wage job.

“Our gas had already been turned off while I was gone, and I was heating bath water with those big roaster pots,” she said.

She said she washed her clothes in cold water and cooked with the microwave and electric skillets.

“If it hadn’t been for the energy assistance program, I don’t know what I would have done,” she said, “because I have a 9-year-old daughter and I’ve got to keep her fed and I’ve got to keep her clean.”

Phyllis Cook, executive director of Panhandle Community Services, said the agency has helped more people than usual in the last couple of years after receiving extra funds and stimulus money starting in 2009. However, she doesn’t know what to expect for the future.

Angie Ascencio, director of special projects, said the utilities assistance program didn’t receive stimulus dollars, but the agency did receive more than $5.7 million in state funding in 2011, which Ascencio said is the highest amount she has seen in the time she has worked there.

She said the utilities assistance program helped 22,717 people, or 8,368 households, in 2011.

With the money influx, the agency worked under looser poverty guidelines, as regulated by the state. Under those guidelines a single-member household could receive assistance if they made less than $21,660 annually, and a four-person household could receive assistance if they made less than $44,100 a year.

But at the beginning of the year the agency was instructed to tighten up its giving guidelines. Now a single-member household must have an annual income of less than $13,538 to receive assistance, and a four-person household must make an annual income of less than $27,563 in order to qualify.

Another program has helped reduce heating and cooling bills for some residents in the Panhandle, Cook said. The home-repair program provides healthy living environments and energy conservation, according to the agency.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee estimated in 2010 that savings will likely exceed the program’s cost, and that every $1 spent on it from 2009 to 2011 would result in almost $2 in energy savings.

“There’s no point in heating your house if it’s going right out a broken window,” Cook pointed out, and said she can tell the program is effective because she can look at the billing history of some of the elderly people who use the energy assistance program every year.

In addition to the utilities assistance program, Waltz said she is also going to use the weatherization program to fix a hole in her back door.

“The rest of the house is sound,” Waltz said. “It’s just that hole in the back door ... we get frost on the floor.”

As of September 2011, the 58 state-level grant recipients were awarded approximately $4.75 billion from the Department of Energy to implement the Weatherization Assistance Program under the Recovery Act and reported spending about $3.46 billion, as reported by the Government Accountability office on Dec. 16. The report said the department expects to meet or exceed its target of repairing 607,000 homes.

The weatherization program at Panhandle Community Services received a two-year contract in 2009 for almost $5 million, said weatherization director Ken Rusler. In two years, he said they were able to repair about 775 houses.

What next summer and winter will look like will depend on what funding looks like come April, he said.

Rusler said at the height of their weatherization program, from about April to September in 2011, the agency employed about 60 contractors. Now there are only five or six doing weatherization work, and Rusler doesn’t foresee taking on new contractors anytime soon.

“For the two-year period it created jobs, and we’re letting them all go again now that we’re out of stimulus money,” he said.

Rusler said next year the agency will go back to serving with the “bread and butter” federal funds allocated to them by the state, which is usually somewhere between $250,000 and $300,000, although he said they’ve heard those funds could be reduced as well.

“We keep hearing that they’re going to be cut,” Rusler said. “If they are, that means less people will be able to be served. We’ll try to stretch what money we’ve got to make it through winter until we start our new contracts.”

Atmos Energy and Xcel Energy help fund the weatherization program.

Wes Reeves, spokesman for Xcel Energy, said Xcel committed $50,000 to Panhandle Community Services in 2011.

Aside from intermittently giving money to the weatherization at Panhandle Community Services, Roy Urrutia, spokesman for Atmos Energy, said the company has a Share the Warmth program, which gives Atmos customers the opportunity to donate money to help people pay their utility bills.

Atmos asks customers to donate money to the program and then the company provides a contribution based on projected earnings for that year, Urrutia explained. The money is divided between four agencies — South Plains Community Action Association, Panhandle Community Services, Helping Hands of Midland and West Texas Opportunities — which distribute the money to residents who need assistance paying their utility bills.

In 2010, the customer contribution was $22,658 and the company contribution was $30,051. In 2011, the customer contribution was $78,308 and Atmos contributed $23,573.

“We give the money to these agencies because they know the needs, and that’s worked really, really well,”Urrutia said. “I think it’s been a very good program because it’s helping people in need.”

Brittany Nunn