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October 22. 2013 8:14PM

Natural gas users should expect less fuel assistance this winter

New Hampshire will cut back its fuel assistance payments this winter for recipients who heat with natural gas, given the fuel's cheaper cost compared to oil, propane and other fuels, according to the state official who runs the program.

The state is taking the step in expectation of a stable or reduced allocation in the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provided $24.3 million to the state last winter, said Celeste Lovett, fuel assistance program manager for New Hampshire.

Last winter, the state's average fuel assistance benefit to a four-person family amounted to $730. That covered about 25 percent of a family's heating bill if they use oil, but 100 percent if they used natural gas, Lovett said.

"The issue is the funding," Lovett said. "We looked at the whole overall picture and made the decision about natural gas."

This coming winter, the average benefit for a fuel-assistance recipient who heats with natural gas should cover 54 percent of seasonal heating costs, Lovett said.

The state is poised in the coming weeks to find out how much it will receive from Washington to fund the state's Fuel Assistance Program. Last winter's allocation was $1.7 million less than the previous year, a result of budget sequestration, Lovett said.

Lovett said the amount of the Washington appropriation is usually known by now, but the partial shutdown had delayed the program's appropriation. Typically, fuel allocations are decided about two weeks after Congress passes a continuing resolution, which it did last week, ending the shutdown.

Lovett said the decision to reduce natural gas benefits allows the state to provide fuel assistance at the current income level — 200 percent of federal poverty level, which works out to $47,100 for a family of four. It also is expected to prevent the program from running out of money toward the end of the winter.

She said natural gas customers are also at an advantage because utilities charge less for people who are on assistance. Liberty Utilities reduces the gas-delivery charge of its bill by 60 percent for people on any government assistance, the company said.

And a utility must obtain permission from the Public Utilities Commission before it disconnects winter service for an elderly or poor customer.Southern New Hampshire Services, which handles fuel assistance applications in Hillsborough and Rockingham counties, said it has been processing applications at a steady pace. But energy director Ryan Clouthier said applications were running about 295 behind the same time the previous year, something he attributes to the warmer weather.
"Once we see the cold weather come in," Clouthier said, "the numbers will definitely increase."

mhayward@unionleader.com


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