DPW: Heating assistance not in jeopardy

Heating costs are up and temperatures are down.

According to data from the National Climatic Data Center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), three of the last four months have seen below-average temperatures in the region. Only December boasted temperatures at or above the average normal.

Lower temperatures always mean higher heating bills, but this winter the situation has been exacerbated by rising costs for heating fuel.

It’s a combination that hits everyone’s pocketbook, but what about those who need financial aid just to tackle normal heating costs?

For individuals receiving aid through Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funds, which are provided through a finite, yearly appropriation, an especially hard winter raises the specter of a possible exhaustion of available aid.

Despite the cold, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW) says that isn’t likely to happen.

“We anticipate having plenty of funding with the additional federal funds,” DPW Director of Communications Eric Kiehl said.

The additional funds Kiehl is referring to are related to an approximately $454 million additional disbursement released by the federal government in January in response to the rising costs of heating oil. The funds were in addition to an initial release for the program in November of approximately $2.9 billion.

Of those funds, Pennsylvania received an initial appropriation in November of approximately $175.6 million and an additional disbursement of approximately $27.5 million in January for total LIHEAP funding of approximately $203 million.

There are actually two separate heating aid programs funded under the auspices of LIHEAP cash grants and crisis grants.

Cash grants are administered as payments to a recipient’s heating provider for heating bills. Crisis grants are one-time payments for immediate heating needs, such as replacing a heater or paying the costs of initially setting up heating in a residence.

Locally, the program aids a significant number of people.

In Warren County, as of Feb. 27, 1,305 applications were approved for cash grants this winter with an average payment of $201. Meanwhile, 246 applications for crisis grants were approved in the county at an average payment rate of $365. LIHEAP has provided $262,479 in cash grants and $69,371 in crisis grants so far this year for total aid of $331,850. This figure represents only a small increase over program spending at this point last year of $317,485, but the number of approved applications this year is smaller. This means on a per application basis, grant payment are higher than last year.

Statewide, the program has provided approximately $76.4 million in cash grants and $29.6 million in crisis grants this winter accounting for approximately $106 million in total aid, or about 52 percent of the approximately $203 million available.

In Pennsylvania, the program is scheduled to run from Nov. 4, 2013 to April 4, 2014, leaving the bulk of two months still ahead for the program.

“We have no plans to extend the program at this time,” Kiehl noted.