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Filling in the gaps

Brandy Scott has 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 part of her lower calf from the surgeries needed to stop the infection. So she wasn’t able to return to work. Then her husband, George, lost his retail store job.

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

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

Washington’s and Idaho’s chunks 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through community service agencies in each state, but unlike state funds, these federal dollars can’t be held back or withdrawn because of budget deficits.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 in 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.

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 formula that considers a family’s income, size, energy needs and 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.

Kootenai County’s situation is similar to Spokane County’s.

“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 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 feeling grateful. They plan to spread the word about the program to others struggling this 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.”

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

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