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THE STRUGGLE TO STAY WARM

December 10, 2012

Wood pellets are just one of the ways Vermonters will be staying warm this winter. Courtesy photo

NEWPORT, VT - Nobody wants to be cold, but with current fuel prices and a poor economy, many Vermonters are finding themselves turning down the thermostat and putting on a sweater or two.
The Department of Children and Family Services (DCF) offers to help low income Vermonters pay their heating fuel bill. Clients may apply for assistance any time during the year. DCF issued benefits from late September to mid-March. Benefits are based on two factors: financial need and energy burden need.
"Financial need is simple," said Richard Moffi, fuel assistant program chief. "The higher your income, the lower your benefit; and the lower your income, the higher your benefit."
The energy burden in a one-bedroom apartment is less than a three-bedroom home, thus DCF will give more of a benefit to the person living in a three-bedroom unit than living on a one-bedroom unit, even though the occupants have the same income. The average benefit for this year's heating season is $900.
"When we issue the benefit, we issue one benefit for the year directly to the client's heating supplier" said Moffi. That is unless the client uses firewood or pellets. Then DCF issues the money to the client. "The client gets to shop around and get the best deal for their firewood and pellets."
The maximum income cap for clients is 185 percent of the federal poverty level. For example, the maximum gross monthly income for a single person household is $1,723. The maximum monthly gross income for a two-person household is $2,333. The monthly maximum gross income for a three-person household is $2,944. Add $611 for each additional person per month.
DCF reviews benefit eligibility status annually. Most Vermonters who qualify for food assistance also qualify for fuel assistance. During the last heating season, DCF provided assistance to nearly 39,000 household. This year DCF expects to provide help to 41,000 families. Moffi blames the increase on a bad economy. People's income also changes from year to year, Moffi said.
"We typically see a four to six percent increase in the demand for the program every year," said Moffi.
Moffi didn't have exact figures on age demographics of recipients. However, he did say that just over 29 percent of the households DCF serves has an elderly person living in it. About 27 percent have someone with a disability and about 21 percent have a child younger than age six. In addition, 72 percent of the families include at least one member who is either elderly, has a disability or is a child under six.
DCF doesn't look at resources when determining if a household is eligible for assistance. Moffi said most low-income clients lucky enough to have a home probably don't have any other resources.
Those just above the eligibility cap are not necessarily left out in the cold. Moffi said the state's community action programs have crisis fuel assistance. Northeast Kingdom Community Action runs the local program.
"The crises program is a safety net and it operates as a resource for those folks just over the income limit for seasonal fuel assistance," said Moffi. The limit for the crises program is 200 percent above the federal poverty level. "The maximum for a one person household is $1,862. For every additional household member, you add $862."
The tank has to be a quarter of tank of fuel, but Moffi stressed the state doesn't want anyone to let a tank go dry. Those with dry tanks risk damaging their heating system and going cold, and it cost more to get fuel delivered. The state allows three crises fill-ups a season, but is drafting a change that will decrease that next winter.
Anyone who wishes to apply for the crises fuel program may do so at the local NEKCA office.
Coventry residents may apply for assistance through NEKCA from the Coventry Town Foundation. The seasonal payout is about $250. Brooke Brittell, NEKCA outreach supervisor, said recipients have to exhaust their other options first. Residents can use the money for other bills like electricity, hot water, etc. The Coventry Foundation has to approve use of the funds.
Those interested in obtaining help from NEKCA may call 1-800-479-6151. Feb. 28 is the last day anyone may apply for fuel assistance.

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