States try to ease blow of heat bills

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Missouri has not announced any action to provide additional help for low-income families.

With fuel bills expected to rise sharply this winter, several states are taking action now to cushion the blow to consumers.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich announced Tuesday that major utility companies in his state will waive reconnection fees and suspend deposit requirements for low-income households. Ohio freed up an additional $75 million for heating assistance for the needy, and Wisconsin added $16 million. Iowa officials set up a Web site to give people advice on how to save energy and get aid, but they acknowledged that may not be enough.

Missouri has not announced any action to provide additional help for low-income families. The East Missouri Action Agency in Cape Girardeau began accepting applications for utility assistance Oct. 1.

Heating costs this winter are expected to be as much as 50 percent higher for natural gas users and 40 percent more for propane customers.

On Wednesday, the Energy Department predicted winter heating bills will be a third to a half higher than last year for most families across the country -- an average of $350 more for natural gas users and $378 more for fuel oil users.

People "can only turn the thermostat so low before it affects your health and well-being," said Jerry McKim, chief of Iowa's Bureau of Energy Assistance, which helps poor families pay their utility bills. "This is a life-or-death matter. I have serious anxiety about what folks will face this winter."

The rising prices are blamed largely on hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which damaged oil and natural gas installations and disrupted production.

More than half of all U.S. households heat with natural gas. Nearly a third of the country relies on electric heat, but those homeowners may see their bills go up too, because many power plants run on natural gas.

Every winter, heating assistance helps people like Willa Meriweather, a retired graphic artist from Cleveland. Before a state-funded not-for-profit group helped her install insulation in the attic of her 85-year-old home, fix its leaky roof and seal old windows, her gas bills soared out of her reach: as high as $473 a month.

"I got one of those big, old houses with a teen suite and I couldn't use it in the wintertime. Now I can use it," said Meriweather, 60. "I'm slightly worried about this winter, but thank God I don't think my bills will be as high as it was before."

This winter could see many more applicants for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program with not enough money to go around. Congress provided $2.2 billion for the program last year, but this year President Bush has proposed cutting it to about $2 billion.

Twenty-nine governors have asked Washington for $1.3 billion more for emergency energy assistance. There has been no immediate action from Congress on the request.

"This program is critical to the elderly, disabled and children of this state," Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack said.

Some states have found additional money to spend on heating assistance within their budgets.

Wisconsin has more than doubled funding to $16 million for a program that weatherproofs homes and businesses and helps the poor pay their bills.

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft last week ordered $75 million added to the state's $100 million heating aid program. And the income limits will be raised so that more families can receive money to pay their heating bills.

Meriweather, whose multiple sclerosis keeps her in the house most days, said she would like to pack up her motorized scooter and go to Washington to help the governors get more federal aid.

"There are going to be a whole lot of people without heat this winter. You're going to find a lot of people frozen to death," she said. "Maybe when somebody dies, that's when they'll do something. Oh, Lord."

Staff writer Rudi Keller contributed to this report.

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