Help for heating bills is out there

With the winter of 2018 predicted to be colder than last year across the country and energy prices rising, North Country residents can expect to pay more to keep warm this year.

But what if you can’t pay?

Stephanie Snow, Essex County’s director of eligibility for the federal Home Energy Assistance Program, encouraged people to apply if they need help.

“I don’t think people realize that just because they’re not eligible for other programs, they’re still eligible for HEAP,” said Snow. The enrollment period for HEAP began Monday, and the phones in Snow’s office were ringing off the hook. Snow said it’s always a little crazy on the first day.

HEAP payments, for those who are eligible, start assisting with residential energy costs on Jan. 2, 2018. Funds are limited to one grant per heating season and vary according to the applicant’s living situation. Residents who pay heat as part of their rent can receive a small grant of $30 to $35. Households that make payments directly to the utility company, if eligible, can receive $675 maximum. HEAP payments are made directly to the utility or fuel vendor.

It’s good to apply early because the amount of funding available is finite. Every year it runs out before the end of the cold weather.

“The state bases the closing date on how many cases are still open,” said Snow. “If someone has applied and been approved for HEAP before the cut-off date, they’ll still get it.”

Last year, she said, the cut-off date was March 17.

Notwithstanding President Donald Trump’s promises last May to completely cut HEAP funding from the federal budget, both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have brought budget bills out of committee that continue HEAP at 2017 levels, allotting $3.39 billion to the program. The federal program is called LIHEAP, or Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and serves more than 6 million households a year. Of those, 30 percent have an elderly (60-plus years old) resident, around 40 percent have a resident with a disability, and 20 percent have at least one child under the age of 5.

In Essex County, 2,318 households got HEAP last year. For those who have applied and been rejected, Essex County has the Last Stop Heating Assistance Program. For help, call the Adirondack Community Action Program in Elizabethtown 518-873-3207.

National Grid also has help for utility customers. The utility company’s Care & Share program, which provides a one-time grant of $200 toward residential energy bills, opens in January. To qualify, a customer must have already exhausted HEAP options.

“I think what happens is, people get too worried about their bill and they don’t call when they should,” said Snow. “As long as they stay current with their payment plan, National Grid will work with them.”

While HEAP can help with emergencies, some grants aim to avoid emergencies altogether. HEAP can help residents lower their energy bills by cleaning and tuning their furnaces or boilers, or even replacing them if necessary. Eligibility requirements take age into account as well as income.

“You can have a higher resource level if you’re a senior citizen,” said Snow.

Finally, New York state law gives residents 15 days of shut-off protection during the two-week holiday season encompassing Christmas and New Year’s Day. New York also prohibits utilities from shutting off heat and electric to households where someone is blind, disabled, older than 62 and the remaining household members are also 62 or older, and where there are children 18 and younger. The state requires the utility to contact the customer and set up a payment plan, and if that doesn’t work, the utility has to delay shut-off for 15 days and request the department of social services to get involved.

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