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Energy assistance program overflowing with funds

Mon., Dec. 8, 2008, 3:48 p.m.

The Scott family, from left Traice, age 10, Desire, age 7, George (dad), Destiny, age 7, Shaena, age 11 and Brandy (mom) gather at the SNAP office at the Northeast Community Center to apply for federal money to help with fuel costs, December 4, 2008 in Spokane, Wash.  DAN PELLE The Spokesman-Review (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
The Scott family, from left Traice, age 10, Desire, age 7, George (dad), Destiny, age 7, Shaena, age 11 and Brandy (mom) gather at the SNAP office at the Northeast Community Center to apply for federal money to help with fuel costs, December 4, 2008 in Spokane, Wash. DAN PELLE The Spokesman-Review (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Brandy Scott had a bad 2008. The certified nurse’s aide was bitten by a spider in January. The infected bite turned into a bacterial nightmare, and she lost a good chunk of her leg from the surgeries needed to stop the infection. So she wasn’t able to return to work. And then her husband, George, lost his retail store job.

The Scotts are raising four children in a big, drafty house in northeast Spokane. The home is heated by natural gas.

Through a chance conversation with a friend, Scott learned that she was likely eligible for heating assistance to help pay part of her winter heating bill that averages $300 a month.

The federal program is called LIHEAP, which stands for Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and it’s awash in funds – $5.1 billion for 2009 – thanks to bipartisan legislation signed Sept. 30 by President Bush.

Both Washington’s and Idaho’s chunk of LIHEAP funds doubled, compared with 2008. The increase came about because federal officials anticipated historically high heating oil and natural gas prices this winter. The program is administered through community service agencies in each state, but unlike state funds, these federal dollars can’t be held back or withdrawn due to budget deficits.

When oil prices started tumbling, some conservative groups grumbled about the biggest LIHEAP authorization since the program’s inception in 1982. The grumbling stopped when Wall Street’s woes began.

“It’s hard for the people getting $700 billion to complain about it,” said Brandon Avila of the national advocacy group Campaign for Home Energy Assistance. “We’re going through some tough economic times. This can fill in the gaps. The program still only serves 20 percent of the population that’s eligible.”

Scott, her husband and their four children had a 3:30 appointment Thursday afternoon at Spokane Neighborhood Action Programs offices, located at the Northeast Community Center. They were right on time. Scott called SNAP’s energy assistance line at least 30 times before she got through to make the appointment. But she didn’t grow impatient, and she didn’t give up. She’s the ideal client in that respect, SNAP staffers say.

SNAP hopes clients understand that, unlike in some past years, LIHEAP funds won’t run out. Even though SNAP hired nine extra staffers to handle the energy assistance calls, the phone lines are often busy.

“It’s not like a concert,” explained Ron Hardin, SNAP’s communications manager. “We have new front-row tickets every week.”

The money isn’t handed out like concert tickets, either. Checks are written directly to the utility and show up as credit on a client’s bill. Some households that heat with wood get checks paid directly to them.

The grants are determined by a complex formula that considers a family’s income, family size, energy needs and home heating bill history. Families are entitled to one energy assistance grant per heating season, which runs from October 2008 to September 2009. As of Monday, SNAP had distributed nearly $1.2 million to 2,183 households of its $7.4 million available for energy assistance. The average grant was $567, and the maximum grant available is $1,000.

In Kootenai County, the situation is similar to Spokane County.“We’ll be able to see more families this year. And in general, the benefits will be larger,” said Mark Haberman, who oversees the energy assistance program for the Kootenai County office of Community Action Partnership in Coeur d’Alene.

He said nearly 2,600 households received energy assistance last year; that’s expected to increase to 3,100 households in 2009.

Haberman’s office is urging patience, too, for North Idaho residents seeking appointments to apply for energy assistance.

The Scotts left SNAP’s office grateful for the program they heard about through coincidence. They plan to spread the good news to others struggling this winter season.

“Heat is the hardest thing to keep up with,” Brandy Scott said. “And with the holidays and (my husband) getting laid off, we are just so glad to have the help. I’m glad to get the word out.”

Energy Assistance

•In-person appointments are required to receive non-emergency energy assistance. Spokane County residents should call SNAP’s appointment line – (509) 242-2376 – Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. or Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. A limited number of appointments can be scheduled at www.snapwa.org on Wednesdays between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

•In Kootenai County, energy assistance is given through Community Action Partnership in Coeur d’Alene, which can be reached at (208) 664-8757. If residents have a shut-off notice or are dangerously low of their heating source material, they should call as soon as the notice appears or the emergency arises. If they are current with their bill, they should call for an appointment the first week of January, because all December appointments are booked.

•SNAP and Community Action Partnership urge low-income residents to let their utility company know that they are trying to schedule – or have scheduled – appointments for energy assistance so that their heating supplies will not be shut off.

Rebecca Nappi can be reached at rebeccan@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5496.


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