Some of the region’s Congressional representatives are calling for an increase in funding to the program that provides heating assistance to low income families.
Vermont Congressman Peter Welch is leading a coalition of House members asking President Obama to increase funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program - or LIHEAP. The Representatives sent a letter to the White House this week requesting that the President’s proposed fiscal year 2015 budget include at least $4.7 billion dollars for the program. Welch notes that funding for the program has declined 30% while both heating costs and need have risen. “We’re trying to restore funding to what it was before the cuts occurred. In Vermont, the state has had to step in. So let's restore funding to what it was before these continuous.”
Welch acknowledges that the program is not intended to pay a full season’s fuel bill, but sees it as an essential lifeline and considers the requested funding levels a bare minimum. “By no means is this a solution. It’s four-hundred dollars. That's what the average grant is. So this is a grim situation, but let's do what we can, and I think restoring funding to what it should be, or was, is the bare minimum of what we should do.”
Vermont Fuel Assistance Program Director Richard Moffi retrieved data that shows the LIHEAP federal allocation to Vermont has dropped from a high of $38.5 million in 2009, to its current allocation of just under $17 million. Moffi says Congressman Welch’s proposal would raise it to about $19 million. That would add an extra $100 in fuel assistance to each home needing the benefit. “The reality for folks on a fixed income and a lot of working Vermonters at low wage jobs is the high cost of fuel in Vermont, the cold temperatures, especially this year, make getting a one hundred gallon minimum delivery of oil or propane or kerosene over four hundred dollars. And that’sa chunk of change that most folks cannot come up with.”
Vermont supplements the federal LIHEAP funds so that nearly one-third of the program comes from state grants. The average fuel assistance benefit for Vermonters this year is just under $800, which provides about 200 gallons of fuel. Moffi says he also needs more clarity from Congress. “We’re running a country fundamentally without a detailed budget. And certainly the only thing I look for is where's the LIHEAP numbers. There’s vague reference to continued funding at last year 's level, but beyond that there is no detail. So the Vermont program, as well as the New York program, the New Jersey program, the New Hampshire program, all program directors are going ‘I hope I’m estimating correctly and we’re actually going to get what we think the budget is trying to tell us.’”
New York Senator Charles Schumer this week called on the Department of Health and Human Services to immediately release LIHEAP funds that have not been distributed to states. Schumer said New York State is awaiting the release of $35 million dollars in LIHEAP funds. He also called for an increase in LIHEAP funding during Senate Appropriations negotiations.