Writing and reporting by Jake Brown
Washington D.C. delivered a rare piece of certainty to the nervous ears of LIHEAP state offices, community action agencies, utilities, and--most importantly--vulnerable customers around the country. After months of uncertainty, the House Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee officially passed an appropriations bill with $3.39 Billion in program funding, while a 3-month continuing resolution set to run through December 8th included LIHEAP funding for fall enrollment season just as applications were starting to roll in around the United States.
The fall enrollment season is open for LIHEAP's support with winter heating bills. U.S. Senator Susan Collins co-authored a letter to the HHS with North Dakota U.S. Senator John Hoeven urging the expedited release of fall funding. The letter notes that LIHEAP "been an indispensable lifeline during challenging economic times, helping to ensure that recipients do not have to choose between paying their energy bills and paying for other necessities like food or medicine."
Senator Hoeven drove home the point that "for families struggling to get by, whose homes may not be well-insulated or weatherized against harsh weather, this assistance helps make ends meet. That’s why we are urging the administration to make the funding available, so state agencies are prepared to help out as soon as needed."
Local agencies were already running in high gear, including Milwaukee County's Energy Assistance program center, where over 58,000 applicants were served throughout the 2016/2017 season, representing a SINGLE SEASON RECORD!
The Milwaukee Courier reported that this impressive synergy was made possible through a focus on "improvements to program administration focused on improving program quality, reducing wait times, and using technology, ultimately resulting in increased access to the more than $40 million program." Celebrating the achievement as an (example) of just how much of a milestone this accomplishment was, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele paid a personal visit at the end of September to highlight the fact that "they have been able to serve more applicants than ever while having the lowest wait-times in program history."
Back East, HeartShare of New York, a CAA whose core mission is to "bridge the gap between government, community and families...educate and advocate for the community and equip low income families with resources to stay warm and safe" dispatched Tanya Jones, Director of Energy Assistance & Community Development, to personally visit legislative partners including Assemblyman Titone, and Senators Comrie, Golden and Lanza to speak on behalf of LIHEAP.
Meanwhile, New York City-based non-profit the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, spotlighted the connection between energy efficiency and affordability in the inner-city communities they serve. Assistant Director Marie Calvert-Kilbane noted that "we've been pushing energy efficiency more heavily in the last couple of years because its one way our buildings tend to be affordable in the long-term." Partnering with utility Con Edison as a pilot on a 16-floor walk-up on 9th Street in Manhattan to implement "a comprehensive set of energy efficiency upgrades," the results for residents boasted "the cost-saving and comfort benefits of energy-efficient homes."
Next door, Pennsylvanians breathed a sigh of relief on behalf of her state's approximately 345,000 LIHEAP-reliant families after word came down from the Pennsylvania's Department of Human Services that it reversed its preliminary decision to delay the opening of the season and reduce grant levels.
This decision followed a widely-covered public hearing in July to protest the proposal. Patrick Cicero, director of the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project and chairman of the LIHEAP Advisory Committee, praised the decision as one where "we are glad to see that DHS has reversed its preliminary decision to delay the opening of the season and reduce grant levels. Without a doubt, this outcome would not have been possible had the public not demanded it at the public hearings held by DHS in July."
Cicero also encouraged State legislators to step up with additional funding because "the $200 million that we get does not serve all the households that need it and is insufficient. It's been a long time since Pennsylvania has ever funded LIHEAP. There's some movement in the General Assembly to fund it, but they're not funding it this year. The more people who demonstrate need, the more likely we're going to convince Congress and the state Assembly that more appropriations are needed to meet the demand."
In neighboring New Jersey, Atlantic City Electric took to the media to put out word that customers could breathe a little easier as a $1000-per-household energy assistance payment would be available with the LIHEAP winter heating season. Region President Vince Maione sang the praises of this vital program, spotlighting the difference it makes for "our customers may face financial challenges in meeting their energy needs, so we help them secure the essential energy assistance they need to keep their lights on."
In Massachusetts, Congressman William R. Keating made the important point that in the aftermath of the recent run of disastrous tropical storm fronts that hit the East Coast, and "as we quickly approach the colder weather months, it is imperative that we release the maximum amount of funds available for this program so we not only alleviate some of the burden of high energy costs for our families, but also provide critical assistance to countless Americans suffering from the effects of the recent hurricanes."
Joined by 90 of his fellow members of the House of Representatives across both sides of the aisle - reflective of LIHEAP's universal impact - the letter was encouraging to CAAs like Citizens for Citizens, Inc. who through their Fuel Director Garth Patterson, spoke on behalf of the thousands of households who keep their families warm during winter with heating oil that "our Massachusetts Energy Network continues to enjoy the unwavering support of our federal delegation, and I’d like to thank Congressman William Keating and the other authors of this letter and the many members who signed on for supporting these efforts.”