Stringent Guidelines Hindering Heating Assistance

Published: December 18, 2017 at 12:00 am


As wintry temperatures descend on the region, most people maintain warm and comfy homes by dialing the thermostat up a few degrees.

But many Newtown residents who depend on annual heating assistance grants have to think twice, and many may opt to layer on warmer clothing instead, because they have yet to receive their annual allocation to cover the cost of fuel oil deliveries or an increase to their natural gas or propane bills.

Newtown Social Services Director Ann LoBosco said as of noontime on December 13, fewer than half of the 150 current applications she is processing for heating assistance have been approved for payment. As a result, she is using a number of other means to ensure the most challenged and frail community members requiring heating assistance receive some funding.

"Some people who recently received renter's assistance are borrowing from that until they get their heating checks," Ms LoBosco said.

"For others, we are finding some money in various other funds," she added. "Thank heavens the Lions Club just came in with a donation check, which will help us to cover a few oil deliveries until the applications for our most compromised applicants are processed."

The responsibility for that processing falls on a relatively small group of experienced staffers at the Danbury-based Community Action Agency of Western Connecticut, which is reviewing applications from Newtown as well as all the rest of Northwestern Fairfield and Litchfield counties.

Regional CAA Executive Director Michelle James told The Newtown Bee that her office is under pressure to process an increasing number of applications, and her staff has been working at capacity knowing many clients are already feeling the effects of several recent cold spikes.

At the same time, Ms James said the state Department of Social Services - which passes heating assistance allocations through hers and ten other CAAs across the state - is requiring those agencies to collect an unprecedented level of documentation to ensure assistance funds go to those who are qualified.

Adding to the mix, she said the Danbury CAA lost two experienced staffers whose jobs at this time of year were to primarily handle processing heating assistance applications. Ms James said she and her remaining staff are now training new workers, but it has understandably taken a toll on processing as her new workers are brought up to speed.

The CAAs are being required to collect and verify more details about income, assets, living arrangements, and income sources then was ever the case before, Ms LoBosco said.

"In one case, we were asked to verify and provide proof of the fair market value of a home that a relative of a disabled applicant is allowing them to live in rent free," the social services director said. "We've also had a few other cases where applicants have their electric heating bill included as part of their rent - and we're being required to show a copy of the landlord's electric bill before the heating assistance application is approved."

These are only a few of the dozens of applications that were either delayed at Ms LoBosco's office, or returned by the CAA because all the necessary documentation was not satisfied.

Missing Documentation

At the CAA, Ms James said that her staff is still conforming with state requirements to process checks within 30 days of an approved application. But she said many of the applications from around the region being returned are because documentation that is attached is incomplete or out of date.

Among the most frequently missing or incomplete pieces of documentation are those related to income, assets, and bank accounts.

"Anyone 18 and over we need to verify income," Ms James said. "That means we need pay stubs for the four weeks prior to date of their application."

In addition, she said anyone 18 and over who has zero income must complete a separate zero income form.

"Regarding assets, we need to see all the most recent bank statement within 30 days of application. That means all bank accounts - checking, savings, CDs, stocks, bonds. The only thing we don't look at is 401(k) information," Ms James said.

The CAA staff also must receive copies of all electric bills, even if the applicant is heating with other fuels.

"We need to get a full picture of their energy burden," Ms James said.

Because of tight time requirements tied to many of these pieces of documentation, "we are finding a lot of applications are incomplete and they have to be returned," she said.

Ms LoBosco said some of her own frustration comes when applications that were returned are finally completed and sent back. At that point the 30-day time clock starts over and those revised applications are not moved to the front of the process.

"In those cases, if the applicant needs fuel - especially oil or propane - we'll try to find other sources for some money to hold them over," Ms LoBosco said.

Unseen collateral fallout from this delayed processing, she said, is affecting certain fuel oil vendors who may be experiencing substantially fewer deliveries than they had at the same time in previous years. One who spoke briefly to The Bee asking not to have the company name included, said their delivery orders for clients that typically receive heating assistance every year are down close to 50 percent.

Anyone interested in making a designated donation to help the social services department with those in need of immediate fuel deliveries can do so in person at the office, which is located in the lower rear level of the Newtown Police Department at 3 Main Street. For more information on how to help, residents can call 203-270-4330.

Statewide Perspective

Operation Fuel, Connecticut's only year-round, statewide nonprofit emergency energy assistance organization, has found home energy costs continue to present an overwhelming burden for more than 320,000 low- and moderate-income households.

There is now a $450 million home energy affordability gap for Connecticut households with incomes at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, according to the Home Energy Affordability Gap: Connecticut (2017) report, which Operation Fuel released December 13.

The affordability gap is the portion of their energy bills that more than 320,000 Connecticut households can't afford to pay, not the entire amount that they owe. On average each household, with incomes at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, owes $1,404 more than they can afford to pay in annual energy bills.

While the home energy affordability gap has been going up and down over the past few years, the number of households affected has remained consistent at over 300,000.

The current energy affordability gap is an increase of nearly $51 million, from $399 million the previous year. The Home Energy Affordability Gap: Connecticut (2017) report attributes the increase to rising home heating prices in Connecticut.

The report states that according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), March 2017 natural gas heating prices for residential customers had increased 12 percent over March 2016 while fuel oil prices had increased nearly 15 percent from $2.121 per gallon for the 2015-2016 heating season to $2.436 per gallon for the 2016-2017 heating season.

Connecticut's home energy affordability gap now exceeds the funds available for energy assistance by more than $370 million. The Federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which is the state's primary source of energy assistance, provided $78.7 million in energy assistance last winter.

This covered only 17.5 percent of the home energy affordability gap.
This past fiscal year, Operation Fuel provided more than $3.3 million in energy assistance to nearly 7,900 households. Almost half of the people helped were either elderly or children under the age of 18.

Operation Fuel, Connecticut's only year-round, statewide nonprofit emergency energy assistance organization, .

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