January 21, 2010 in City

Economy, not weather, draining heating help

By The Spokesman-Review
 

How to get help

For energy assistance, call SNAP between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesdays or between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Thursdays.

To find out about help in Kootenai County, call (208) 765-1200.

A Spokane nonprofit that provides energy assistance for low-income residents could run out of money for that program a month or two earlier than last year due to a record number of calls for help, despite a milder winter.

The number of requests SNAP has received since Oct. 25 – nearly 12,000 – is about the same as the nonprofit had logged last March, the agency said. The amount of assistance expected to be paid out by the end of February is close to $6.6 million.

“We have about the same amount of money as last year,” which is around $8.8 million, said Ron Hardin, SNAP’s communications manager. “The money last year lasted into the month of June. If the money runs out in April or May, we’ll have to stop.”

The culprit? The economy.

“We are assisting a significant amount of families for the first time ever,” said Margaret Bolete, director of the energy assistance program.

Those first-timers include young families where both partners have lost their jobs, seniors who thought they had their retirement plans put together before the economy worsened, and families dealing with serious illnesses, Hardin said.

During the 2008-’09 energy assistance season – the end of October through the beginning of June – SNAP helped 13,880 households, Hardin said. The average amount given is about $545 per household. If a person qualifies for assistance, the money is paid to the utility company on that person’s behalf. A majority of the money comes from the federal government’s energy assistance program for low-income people. Under the program, a family of four with gross income of $2,297 per month qualifies.

In North Idaho, nearly 30 percent more Kootenai Electric Cooperative customers sought energy assistance in 2009 compared with the previous year, said Erika Neff, the member-owned utility’s spokeswoman.

“Someone calls us and they can’t pay their bill, and we help them find the available resources,” Neff said.

Avista Utilities likewise has been trying to work with its customers to help them through tough times, said spokeswoman Debbie Simock.

The company explains “comfort billing,” or payment options, with customers who are unfamiliar with their bill-paying options.

Said Simock: “The last thing we want to do is have someone shut off.”


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