Energy assistance dries up mid-summer

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 | 5:48 p.m. CDT; updated 8:55 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 24, 2008

COLUMBIA — As temperatures and energy costs rise this summer, residents who struggle to pay the bills soon won’t be able to count on government money to help them keep cool.

Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, helps pay the energy bills of low-income families facing shutoffs. This summer, each family could receive up to $300 from the federal program to pay for electric bills, distributed in Columbia by Central Missouri Community Action. Households that qualify must have incomes no greater than 125 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $26,500 a year for a family of four, or $13,000 for a single adult.

Resources for staying cool and safe

Cooling shelters in Columbia: 

Activity & Recreation Center (ARC), 1701 W. Ash St., Red bus line
Armory Sports and Community Center, 701 E. Ash  St., Blue bus line
Columbia Public Library, 100 W. Broadway, Red bus line
Columbia Mall, 2300 Bernadette Drive, Green and Blue bus lines
Columbia/Boone County Health Dept., 1005 W. Worley St., Green bus line
Oakland Senior Center, 1301 Vandiver Drive, Suite Q, Orange bus line
Paquin Towers, 1201 Paquin St., Red bus line

Low-income families can receive a fan from the “Fan Club,” a partnership of Voluntary Action Center, KOMU and Lowe’s. To request or donate a fan, call 874-2273.
The Columbia/Boone County Health Department also offers two utility assistance programs; one for seniors and people with disabilities, and one for low-income families with young children. To contact the Health Department, call 874-7355.

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Darin Preis, executive director for Central Missouri Community Action, said he expects the money to run out before next week. Since June 2, more than 92 percent of the LIHEAP money has been given to mid-Missourians. The money was intended to last through the end of September, as it did last year, but higher demand has led to the shortage.

In 2007 year, money ran short in mid-August, but supplemental funds were given in September. Even with the supplemental funds calculated in for last year, CMCA had more money this year to distribute.

“More and more people are coming in who haven’t come in in the past,” said Melody Rodriguez, energy coordinator for CMCA.

The increasing price of energy, because of the higher demand for power, also contributed to the increased need.

“There’s never going to be enough money available,” Preis said.

“There’s never going to be enough power,” he added about the skyrocketing demand.

“The point should be to lower the bill up front,” Preis said.

Rodriguez also emphasized that decreasing consumption is key.

“We’re throwing money out the window, literally,” she said.

The agency continues to consider more ways to reduce the energy needs of people in poverty, including offering energy audits and weatherization for homes, and potentially working with utility companies to track customers who sign a release when they receive assistance.

“We need to find the people with holes in the ceiling,” Rodriguez said.

Once the money runs out, CMCA will refer those seeking assistance with electric bills to other options for keeping cool, such as cooling centers where residents can go during heat advisories during business hours to rest in air conditioning.

Although some churches and other groups offer financial help for families in crisis situations, “chances are good that everyone’s tapped out,” Preis said.

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