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Published: Wednesday, 3/21/2001

Ohio panel approves aid for high heating bills

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - An Ohio Senate committee yesterday approved Governor Taft's plan to funnel up to $250 to poor and middle-income families struggling to pay skyrocketing winter heating bills.

A Senate vote is set for today on Project Thaw. If the House agrees, it immediately would free a logjam of applications received by county agencies for a program that does not exist.

The Lucas County Department of Job and Family Services is sitting on about 2,500 applications from senior citizens and disabled people it can't process because the General Assembly has yet to fund the portion of the program affecting them.

“That's why we needed to pass this bill,” said state Sen. Louis Blessing (R., Cincinnati), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Senior citizens and other individuals without children are questioning why their applications are sitting on desks while checks are going out to utilities as credits against the heating bills of families with children.

“We are human beings too,” said a disabled Toledo woman in her 50s who did not want to be identified. Living on Social Security and food stamps, she's confident she meets the program's income criteria.

“What about the senior, a widow, who has a heating bill of $500?” she asked.

Project Thaw relies on two pots of money: $25 million from federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds and $20 million in general state tax revenue. Because the governor doesn't need legislative approval to use the TANF funds, that money is flowing. But federal rules limit the money to programs benefiting poor children.

Until the $20 million is appropriated for the second half of the program, senior citizens, single people, or couples without children will have to wait.

George Steger, director of the Lucas agency, said most of the 2,500 applications are from people who would qualify under the income requirements of Thaw.

Project Thaw would provide up to 50 percent of a household's heating bill for a single month, or $250, whichever is less. To be eligible, a family may not earn more than 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines, currently $29,260 for a family of three.

The committee yesterday amended the bill to allow the one month's bill submitted by participants to include unpaid, past-due amounts from a prior bill.

The bill also would allow local governments to band together to negotiate natural gas prices in bulk on behalf of their residents. Before sending the bill to the Senate, the committee opened the door for large cities like Toledo to participate, lifting population restrictions set by the House.



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