Residents face winter heating bills, but the new state emergency assistance program has yet to open
Energy costs have skyrocketed this winter for both home heat and home power. (Courtesy of Eversource)
A new program is meant to provide additional assistance to Granite Staters as energy rates for home heat and power are soaring. But with the heating season underway, the program has not yet opened and is not yet providing payments to residents in the state who aren’t covered by permanent heat assistance programs.
That’s prompted concern from advocates and residents in critical need of assistance who are facing imminent fuel payments. The program was designed to provide one-time assistance of $200 toward electric bills and $450 toward heating fuel payments to people earning between 60 and 75 percent of state median income. But advocates say the state Department of Energy hasn’t provided information to the public about when the program will open and when they can expect the assistance.
In response to questions from the Bulletin, the department said that the program is on track to open by the end of the year.
“We don’t know what is causing the delay in opening the new program for households with income between 60-75% of state median income, but it is concerning because energy costs have increased significantly and there are people who would greatly benefit from the assistance,” said Ray Burke, director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance’s energy and justice program, in an email.
The department’s Deputy Commissioner Chris Ellms has pushed back on the idea that the program is behind schedule. In an email, he said the program has not yet opened because additional software had to be developed for tracking and reporting purposes before the program could launch. He also said community action programs, responsible for administering the program have seen what he called a substantial increase in applications for assistance programs.
“The emergency programs continue to be on track to open by the end of the year, consistent with what was communicated to the Legislature before the bill was taken up in September,” said Ellms in an email.
Discussing the bill in September, members of the Legislature expressed urgency around providing swift relief to state residents earlier than January. “Why are we doing this?” said Steven Smith, a Charlestown Republican, when the Legislature met in September. “Because some would say this is an emergency that’s about to affect Granite Staters now and next month certainly, and cannot wait for us to get around to it next January through March or whenever the bill would actually be considered.”
The Legislature passed House Bill 2023 in September, creating a $42 million energy relief program from state surplus money. That came after Gov. Chris Sununu had proposed spending $60 million on energy relief in June.
“We need to get the money out in the next couple of months,” he said at an Executive Council meeting in July.
“It also does need legislative approval,” Sununu added. “So we have to get the Legislature to move and then have the program move quickly from there.”
The Legislature acted on the program in September, but the department has yet to finalize it and make the money available to residents. Individuals who applied back in September say they’re still in a holding pattern, awaiting confirmation from the local community action program to know if and when they will receive assistance.
In December, Sununu said the state is seeing less uptake of the program than expected and that much of the funding remains available.
High demand for help
But evidence suggests a higher-than-usual number of people are requesting fuel assistance this year. Staff at both the Southern NH Services and the Belknap/Merrimack Community Action Program said they have received an atypically high volume of applications this year, echoing information provided by the department.
Ryan Clouthier, the chief operating officer at Southern NH Services Community Action Program, said his agency has received around 2,500 more applicants than in previous years. In a typical year, he said between 800 to 1,000 new households will apply for the program.
“We were anticipating being able to pay this month, and I think we’re on track with where we hope to be,” he said about the program’s timing.
For individuals without heat, Clouthier emphasized that the agency can find other ways of providing assistance by pulling from other funds.
“Whether it’s a state program or not we’re going to prioritize anyone who’s nearly running out,” Lia Richards, the director of energy and area resources at the Belknap/Merrimack Community Action Program, agreed.
For now, Clouthier said the most important message is for people who think they qualify to apply for assistance so they can receive payments as soon as the department makes money available.
Understaffing has been an issue that can extend processing time, according to the agencies, but they have worked to hire additional staff. Clouthier said his office is currently hiring for seven open positions. They have 35 full time staff and 16 temporary staff that have been working extra hours to ensure applications are processed on time, Clouthier said. Richards said her team has doubled, from 15 employees up to 28.
According to Richards, some individuals who have applied for the state’s new emergency program actually qualify for permanent heat assistance through a program called LIHEAP. That program can offer ongoing assistance, as opposed to a one-time payment. “It’s great for everybody,” Richards said. “There are people who will have some support now that things are really high.”
Individuals can apply for fuel or electric assistance through their local community action program. More information is available at https://www.capnh.org/cap-lookup
Residents earning up to 60 percent of the state median income, or up to $38,969 for an individual or $74,941 for a family of four, are eligible for the permanent fuel assistance program, which provides an average benefit of over $1,300.
Anyone facing an emergency because they are without heat or facing disconnection may be entitled to relief through their local welfare office. 603 Legal Aid can assist individuals who are denied welfare assistance. Call (603) 224-3333 to ask for legal help.
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