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Published: Friday, 10/7/2005

Heat assistance program bulks up


With winter heating costs predicted to spike statewide, added relief was approved yesterday for poor Ohioans reliant on state aid to help keep the chill away.

A $100 million state program known as the Home Energy Assistance Program, or HEAP, was bolstered with $75 million by the Taft administration yesterday.

Qualification for the program was also made easier, and now provides bigger payments to those already a part of it.

The program, which on average covered about half the heating costs for the 330,000 Ohio households that qualified by earning less than 151 percent of the federal poverty level, will now be open to those earning less than 175 percent of the poverty level - or an annual gross income of $33,862 for a family of four.

The new guidelines will accommodate an additional 70,000 Ohio households.

Additionally, those already in the program will see their payments jump by 10 percent - from an average of $391 to $430 a year.

"It's in anticipation of what everyone has heard. I've seen all kinds of figures cited, but there's universal agreement that because heating costs will be higher, it's going to be a burden on everybody," said Jon Allen, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

The extra money comes from a $1.1 billion pot of state and federal funds known as Temporary Aid for Needy Families that is used for a variety of programs serving low-income Ohio families - from child care to job training.

In addition to the HEAP program, Ohio offers two other types of aid for those needing help with heating bills: one-time emergency payments of $175 to prevent a utility shut-off, and an extended payment plan capping an applicant's monthly gas bill at 10 percent of their monthly income until they break even and manage to pay it all back.

But with rising natural gas prices, many officials worry about the program's ability to cover everyone.

Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, said in a statement issued in September that "program funding has not kept up with the rapid increase in energy prices," citing the $186 million reduction in funding President Bush is seeking for state HEAP programs in fiscal year 2006 - down from $2,186,000,000 this year.

Mr. Wolfe cited a study saying home heating costs have increased 32 percent since last winter. He anticipated further increases and called for $3.4 billion to fund the program.

In Lucas County, local officials have been fretting as well.

"We're very worried because we can't help the people that really need our help," said Ervin Hollman, HEAP coordinator for Lucas County, who said his office served about 9,000 families last year.

Across the border in Monroe County, about 3,200 households were covered through June in the last fiscal year.

Michigan has already tapped its temporary aid funds, though to a much smaller degree: $16.7 million. Still, between a mixture of federal and state funding, the state funds its heating programs to the tune of $182 million.

Michigan offers slightly different programs: In addition to regular payment credits and an emergency payment program similar to Ohio's, it offers a weatherization program providing repairs for such things as furnaces and windows that will lower heating costs.

The Michigan guideline remains at 150 percent of the federal poverty level.

The Northwest Ohio Corps of the Salvation Army also offers heating assistance to the needy - and tries to stick to the 150 percent mark, though it makes exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

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