Funding levels for utility assistance uncertain

Saturday, November 10, 2007 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 10:21 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA –By 7:30 a.m. on Nov. 1, nearly 50 people had lined up outside of the Boone County Family Resource Center building on Wilkes Boulevard. They were waiting for the office to open at 8 a.m. so they could apply for utility assistance.

While there might be some weather relief ahead — data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicates that this year’s winter will be 4 percent warmer than last year — a possible federal funding cut to low-income home energy assistance could limit local agencies’ resources this winter. Natural gas users are also expected to spend an average $78 more on heating this winter, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Getting utility assistance

• For Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funding at Central Missouri Community Action, call 443-8731. Applications for utility assistance are available at the Boone County Family Resource Center, 400 Wilkes Blvd., 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. The office is closed from noon to 1 p.m. Applications are also available online at • For CASH and HELP programs, call the Columbia/Boone County Health Department’s Utility Assistance Line, 874-7594. Leave a recorded message with your name and phone number between 8 a.m. and noon; calls will be returned in the order they are received. • For AmerenUE’s Dollar More Heating Assistance program, which helps natural gas customers who are older, have disabilities or special needs or are in a low-income family, call the Boone County Human Development Corporation at 443-8706. Assistance is provided through voluntary donations from its customers and AmerenUE’s corporate matching program.

Central Missouri Community Action’s winter crisis program, which specifically addresses heating costs, began enrollment for this year Oct. 1 for older people and people with disabilities, and Nov. 1 for all other customers.

Nearly 200 people applied for the program Nov. 1, bringing the program’s total number of applicants to 1,800 since it began in October, said Randy Cole, energy assistance coordinator at Community Action. About 6,500 people apply throughout the year for utility assistance programs through Community Action, he added.

The agency receives its funding through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which has allocated federal funds to the state since 1982. Nineteen Missouri Community Action agencies are under contract with the state to distribute the funds to all of Missouri’s counties. The central Missouri agency is responsible for eight of those counties.

Funds from the low-income assistance program are distributed depending on population, poverty levels, utility prices and types of utility in each county in the state. Last year, Cole said, the central Missouri agency received slightly more funding because of the increase in utility and gas prices.

This year, however, is a different story.

A bill that includes a $2.66 billion allotment for low-income energy assistance — the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2008 — is in jeopardy. President Bush has threatened to veto the bill because it would counteract his plan for cuts to many programs in the bill. That means Central Missouri Community Action’s current allotment of $470,000 may be all it will receive in winter funding.

If the bill is approved, the central Missouri agency’s winter crisis program would receive the equivalent of last’s years funding, about $1 million.

Not all local service programs would be affected by federal cuts.

The Columbia/Boone County Health Department runs two programs for low-income families with special needs. Citizens Assisting Seniors & Handicapped (CASH) offers utility assistance to seniors and persons with disabilities, while the Heat, Energy & Light Program (HELP) helps low-income families with young children pay their utility bills.

“We can help anyone with their water or electric bill,” Roesslet said. “We are not restricted to emergency situations.”

Roesslet encourages those in need of assistance to call before the shut-off notice appears on their doorstep.

Sometimes customers can get off the department’s waiting list if other customers do not show up for their appointments or if they find another way to pay their utility bills, Roesslet said.

The amount of funding a person or family could receive from these programs depends on whether their utilities are provided by Columbia Water and Light or Boone Electric Cooperative.. Funding is made possible with donations from customers of both utility companies.

In October, the CASH and HELP programs assisted 91 customers. Of those, it helped 48 Columbia Water and Light customers, 41 Boone Electric Cooperative customers, and two customers who use other electric providers.

A proposed increase in Columbia’s utility rates could also increase the strain on those who cannot afford their utility bills. A 9 percent increase in electricity rates and an 8 percent increase in water service are part of the city’s 2008 fiscal year budget.

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