Missouri action agencies call for $10 million in utility aid

Wednesday, January 14, 2009 | 7:37 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Community action agencies that distribute heating aid urged Missouri lawmakers on Wednesday to add $10 million to the program this year.

The money would go to the state Utilicare program, which supplements the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Lawmakers have added utility assistance funds for each of the last three years to the supplemental budget worked out at the beginning of the year.

The community action agencies suggest putting $7 million toward winter heating and summer cooling aid and $3 million into weatherization. Last year, lawmakers budgeted $6.4 million for Utilicare.

Elaine West, executive director for the Missouri Association for Community Action, said there is a waiting list for the aid in Kansas City and that three more of Missouri's 19 agencies could be out of funds by February. She said urban areas generally run out of money first.

West said the Department of Social Services, which administers the assistance program, planned to ask lawmakers to add $7 million for Utilicare. But a department spokeswoman could not immediately confirm that figure Wednesday.

Missouri has received about $45 million in federal funds for utility assistance in each of the past three years. Last year, the state had about $75 million total to be used for energy assistance through state funds and carry-over from the previous year.

That money can be distributed to low-income people as one-time grants based on income, family size and the fuel that is used. Funds also are set aside for crisis cases, allowing people whose service has been disconnected or who have received shut-off notices to get up to $800 for heating. Money also can be used to help pay for weatherizing homes.

West said putting an additional $3 million of state funds into weatherization could help several hundred people lower their energy bills.

"Weatherization is the long term solution," West said.

The average recipient of energy aid had two people in a household and made $720 each month after taxes, according to the Social Services Department.

During the last legislative session, Missouri lawmakers expanded the utility assistance programs and increased by $200 how much families can get if they risk having their utilities cut off. The Legislature also removed a limit on how much can be included in the state budget for the program and required the Social Services Department to use state funds to help low-income people weatherize their homes.

In October, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder called for a special legislative session to boost state assistance for those struggling with their utility bills.

Kinder, a Republican, said rising projected energy costs for the winter demanded swifter attention. But then-Gov. Matt Blunt decided against calling lawmakers back to the Capitol for a lame-duck session after the November election.


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