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Weatherization, bill assistance program help middle-income residents with energy costs

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Cheryl Torres was surprised when she spotted an ad for a program promising to help moderate-income families lower their energy bills.

Typically, the substitute letter carrier, and her husband, who works two jobs, are not eligible for financial assistance.

"We don't qualify for anything because we're not low income," said Torres. "I just thought I would try and see what happened."

Turns out she did qualify and through the Moderate Income Weatherization Program offered by Rebuilding Together Madison County, she received several renovations to her Granite City home. This winter new storm doors, door sweeps, weather stripping and insulation that will keep out chilly air, will allow Torres to give her furnace, and her checkbook, a break.

The program is just one of a handful available to Madison County residents who are getting by, but finding it difficult to budget for high energy costs. These programs "weatherize" a home, sealing the envelope so customers can get the most out of the heating (and cooling) they're paying for.

"We understand the middle class is hurting," said Scott Peery, executive director for Rebuilding Together Madison County. "Being just able to pay it off, and pay it off isn't a good solution when we can do fairly minor things to a home and really reduce the cost of electricity and gas."

Rebuilding Together's program covers 100 percent of weatherization improvements.

Another moderate-income program offered by the Energy Assistance Foundation shares with homeowners the cost of weatherization projects that make their homes more energy efficient.

The organization performs an audit of an applicant's home to determine their needs, which could be anything from caulking windows to a installing a new, energy efficient furnace (homeowners are responsible for covering $500 or 10 percent of the renovations' costs). Both of these programs are available to families with incomes between 200 and 300 percent of the poverty line. For a family of four, that's an annual household income of $44,700 to $67,050.

"It seems too good to be true, that a moderate-income customer who has never been able to receive help, can," said Susan Sams, who heads the Energy Assistance Foundation, which also offers bill pay assistance for homeowners between 150 and 200 percent of the poverty level.

To qualify for federal aid, like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that pays energy bills, an applicant must make 150 percent or less than the poverty level ($33,525 for a family of four).

"I think it's great," said Torres. "There are not a lot of things for people like me that you can get help with."

For that reason, Peery said applications for these programs are on the rise. In 2008, Rebuilding Together weatherized 15 homes. That number jumped to 130 in 2010, and numbers are well over 120 for 2011, he said. In Collinsville, however, it has been three years since a homeowner has applied for assistance through the program, Peery said.

Both Sams' and Peery's programs are funded through the Warm Neighbors, Cool Friends program, which is funded entirely by contributions from Ameren Illinois customers and an annual donation by Ameren's charitable trust. (To qualify for Rebuilding Together and the Energy Assistance Foundation's programs, applicants must be Ameren Illinois customers.)

Through Warm Neighbors, Cool Friends, Ameren customers can tack a dollar or two extra onto their bill; all of that amount goes to programs like Rebuilding Together and the Energy Assistance Foundation, said Leigh Morris, spokesperson for Ameren.

"You never know," said Morris, "when you'll need someone to reach out and help you over that hump."

Sarah Baraba