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Shaheen, CAP officials decry lack of LIHEAP fuel, winterization funds

Union Leader Correspondent

January 06. 2014 8:20PM
Betsy Andrews Parker, executive director of the Strafford County Community Action Program, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, and Meredith Hatfield, director of N.H. Office of Energy Planning, met with CAP officials from across the state in Dover Monday to talk about the challenges of helping people keep their homes warm through federal assistance as temperatures are expected to plummet again. (BOB HOOKWAY PHOTO)

DOVER — As residents across the state struggle to keep warm, more people are seeking assistance from a pool of federal funding to survive through the bitter winter.

On Monday, as daytime temperatures peaked in the 40s and rain descended upon the Seacoast, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, met with a few residents in need after speaking to representatives from regional Community Action Programs (CAP) and officials from the state Office of Energy Planning about the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and the lack of funding for winterization.

“Today’s a little bit of a respite, but it’s not going to last,” Shaheen said, referring to Monday’s mild temperatures and the bitter cold that was on its way.

OEP Director Meredith Hatfield said state and federal funding remains crucial “so people can stay warm this winter.”

Hatfield said there are many great people at the CAP offices who “do amazing things” with limited resources and reductions to funding.

Shaheen hopes the federal budget — the first one passed in several years — will provide more certainty and more resources.

“Because we got a (federal) budget for the next two years, there will be an appropriations process,” Shaheen said, adding it is unclear how much funding will be available to states for heating assistance or other programs.

Celeste Lovell, fuel assistance manager for the N.H. OEP, said additional funding would take the pressure off the state assistance programs — which dropped from $50.9 million in 2009 to $24 million in 2014 — and allow them to return to being preventive, rather than dealing with emergency cases.

“A lot of new people are calling in who’ve never called in before,” Lovell said.

Lovell said it’s challenging because the average amount of assistance — $730 — will only pay for 200 gallons of fuel, which is about a quarter of a normal tank needed to keep a home heated.

“It’s a juggling act at this time to make sure people are safe,” Lovell said, adding about 36,805 households participated in the program last year.

Lovell said she hopes to return to the point where the program could help clean furnaces — making them safer and more efficient — and provide enough fuel to keep tanks full enough to prepare for next winter.

“Right now, I’m focused on the day-to-day for this winter,” Lovell said.

Brandi Bobusia, outreach service manager for Strafford County CAP, said the Dover office usually helps about 23 people a day. As of Monday, she said, they had 35 scheduled appointments.

“After this cold spell, we really have a long way to go this winter,” Bobusia said, adding many people who received fuel assistance Dec. 1 are already in need of more.

Peter Higbee, chief operations officer for Tri-County CAP Administration, said there is a definite increase in emergency requests — which takes time away from normal appointment and operations — throughout Carroll, Coos and Grafton counties and across the state.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of bad planning; these people don’t have the funds,” Higbee said.

Many were concerned about the reduction in funding for winterization projects across the state.

Last year, New Hampshire received $530,000, which is 0.78 percent of the $68 million federal allocation for the program. The state will receive $448,000 in 2014, according to Ryan Clouthier, energy director for Southern New Hampshire Services Inc.

Clouthier, who assists residents in Hillsborough and Rockingham counties, said the program will be able to winterize about 35 to 40 homes across the state in 2014.

Judy Scothorne, director of CAP for Belknap and Merrimack Counties Inc., said the lack of funding for winterizing homes is frustrating since both heat and money escapes. She added this is especially true in mobile homes.

“The cost of living has increased so much,” Scothorne said, adding this forces many people to fill up their tanks five gallons at a time to survive once the assistance runs dry.

John Manning, chief financial officer for Southwestern Community Services, said winterization helps people save enough money to give people breathing room and even alleviate the need for assistance.

On the other hand, Manning said the lack of funding is a shame since the entire winterizing infrastructure is in place, but doesn’t have enough work to support it.

Shaheen said she is working to get a winterization bill heard by fellow legislators.

“Weatherizing is energy efficiency. That’s what my legislation is all about,” Shaheen said.

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