Jones proposes fund for heating bill help
Assemblyman Billy Jones is sponsoring a bill that, if passed, would provide millions of dollars in aid for middle-income North Country residents who need help paying their winter heating bills amid rising energy costs.
With the bill, Jones, D-Chateaugay Lake, is proposing the state establish a $3 million home energy assistance fund aimed for middle-income households. Families that qualify as Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed — or ALICE — households would also be eligible to benefit from the fund. The bill also proposes a suspension on heating fuel taxes until July 2023.
Jones said that he’s working with the state Department of Energy Research and Development Authority to set up eligibility guidelines for the bill, which he said would be geared toward people who don’t quite qualify for low-income assistance programs, like the Home Energy Assistance Program, but who still struggle to pay their heating bills.
“The federal guideline for lower income eligibility is just so low now that a lot of people fall out of the eligibility for many of these benefits,” Jones said.
When asked how quickly he believes the bill could be passed, Jones noted that the state Assembly doesn’t go back into session until January 2023.
“But if we go back in before then, I would think this (bill) would be a priority,” he said. “We certainly don’t want any families or seniors or young children to go without a warm home this winter, and we do live in one of the coldest climates in the state here. … It’s going to be a brutal winter on people with the price of home heating, oil, fuel and just the cost that inflation has put on everyone.”
Jones is also asking federal representatives for an expanded HEAP to increase the funding available and eligibility requirements so more people would qualify for funding through the program.
Jones announced the new bill on Thursday along with officials from the Joint Council for Economic Opportunity, United Way of the Adirondack Region and Franklin County Office of the Aging, who all cited inflation as the driving force behind the increased community need they’re seeing for assistance with heating costs. Jones said that utility companies in the state are predicting a 39% increase in heating costs this winter due to inflation. The Albany Times Union reported earlier this month that National Grid is predicting the 39% increase, which could amount to around $50 more in monthly heating bills than last year.
“Despite their hard work and best efforts, many ALICE families struggle to make ends meet and when unforeseen circumstances arise, it can often lead to a catastrophic chain of events,” John Bernardi, president and CEO of United Way of the Adirondack Region, said in a statement Thursday. “The skyrocketing cost of heating homes is a prime example of a circumstance that has the potential to push families over the financial cliff.”
Jones noted that rising fuel costs could be especially hard for older people who are on a fixed income. Michelle Breen, director of Franklin County Office of the Aging, said her office is already seeing an influx of calls from older adults asking about how they can apply and qualify for HEAP. But she said that because many of the adults her office works with are on a fixed budget, they are slightly over the income guidelines for HEAP. And even if people do qualify for HEAP, JCEO CEO Nicole Laurin — who also noted a “drastic uptick” in calls and requests for energy assistance at her office — said the HEAP application period doesn’t open until Nov. 1. Local temperatures have already started dipping into the mid-40s at night. Jones said Breen and Laurin this year are expecting to receive twice to three times the number of HEAP applications they normally get.