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Heating aid must go further this year

FREMONT - With heating fuel prices headed upward, state and local officials expect more families to struggle with utility bills this winter.

David Rinebolt, executive director of Findlay-based Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy, said predictions for a normal winter mean Ohioans will already be paying more to heat their homes than last year, when temperatures were unusually mild.

Natural gas customers are paying higher rates than they did a year ago. Columbia Gas, for instance, is charging 68 cents for 100 cubic feet, up from 48 cents the same time last year.

“I've been talking to some consumers who had fixed-rate gas contracts last year, at pretty attractive levels, and now you can't find rates anywhere close to those,” Mr. Rinebolt said.

Propane prices also are up 10 percent, to about $1.20 a gallon, and Mr. Rinebolt sees further boosts of 12 to 13 percent on the way.

“Propane is actually a little worse,” he said.

Because of the cold, high fuel prices, and sluggish economy, state and local agencies said they're receiving more calls for help.

“Right now it seems a little busier,” said Janet Quaintance, assistant director of emergency services for the WSOS Community Action Commission in Fremont.

The commission, which serves Wood, Seneca, Ottawa, and Sandusky counties, administers a pair of programs to help low-income families keep up with winter heating costs.

Last year WSOS assisted 1,113 families in the four counties it serves, and Ms. Quaintance expects to handle at least that many cases this winter.

The agency that runs the same programs in Lucas County is busy as well. Last month the Economic Opportunity Planning Association processed 2,400 applications and awarded $230,000 in emergency aid.

“We are making about 90, 95 appointments each day,” said Ervin Hollman, coordinator of the emergency home energy assistance program for EOPA. “The way it's going, it's a little higher than what we were doing in previous years. With the economy, a lot of people need our help.”

The emergency aid program offered by EOPA and WSOS helps low-income families avoid losing utility service or running out of bulk fuel. Under the program, a household may receive a one-time award of up to $175 credited toward its heating bill or a voucher for up to $250 for delivery of propane or fuel oil.

Typically, propane suppliers require a minimum delivery of 250 gallons, an amount that provides 60 to 75 days of fuel.

The local agencies also help residents in less dire straits apply for payment help once per season from the Ohio Department of Development.

Vicky Mroczek, chief of the department's office of community services, said a family of four with annual gross income of $27,150 or less would qualify for help.

The amount granted typically ranges from $150 to $400, depending on the family's size, income, type of fuel used, and location in Ohio.

“Up in your area, a family might have to use more fuel for a longer period of time than a family in extreme southern Ohio,” Ms. Mroczek said.

Both programs are funded by the federal government. The state received $85 million from the federal government last year for the heating programs, but funding for this winter is uncertain because of a lack of action by Congress, Ms. Mroczek said.

“Unfortunately, when Congress adjourned, there were a number of spending bills that had not been completed, and the bill that funds this program was one of them,” she said. “Right now I cannot tell you what the state's final grant amount will be.”

Ms. Mroczek and Mr. Hollman said they fear a drop in funding.

“They're cutting everything else, but I hope they don't cut this, because there's a need for this program,” Mr. Hollman said. “But we do what they tell us to do.”

The state assisted 240,000 people through the regular program and 111,000 through the emergency program last winter, down from 275,000 and 130,000, respectively, in 2000-01.

If funding drops and demand for help rises, Ms. Mroczek said the state will try to stretch the available money so all eligible applicants get help. “We do the best we can to assist everyone,” she said.

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