Federal help with heating bills may go cold



Budget-crunching in faraway Washington, D.C. is putting a chill in a Federal Way-based agency's plans to help low-income families pay their home-heating bills.

The Bush administration has requested $1.4 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) for next year. If approved by Congress, that amount would be $300 million less than the program had this year –– a scenario that is causing administrators of LIHEAP nationwide to worry about the impact that the cut, combined with higher caseloads, could have on people who can't afford to heat their homes.

Multi-Service Center in Federal Way, which runs LIHEAP in south King County, would have to deny more applications than usual. Rejections could top 700, officials said.

Already, LIHEAP funding only serves about 22 percent of eligible families, "so we always have to turn people away," said Nancy Hohenstein, the center's director of community relations.

The number of households served in 2000-01 was 4,951, dropped to 3,608 in 2001-02 and is projected at 2,904 in 2002-03 (based on $408 per household).

South King County's share of the White House-proposed funding would be $1,120,863, which is $252,138 below the direct funding amount Multi-Service Center (MSC) received last year –– an 18.6 percent reduction, Hohenstein said.

LIHEAP is operating on a continuing resolution that has released 74 percent of the proposed budget. Congress hasn't settled on the spending levels and has left the decision to the next congressional session that will convene in January. As a result, MSC has $829,439 to distribute and will have allocated all the dollars available locally by Feb. 1, 2003, unless the budget is approved and the remaining 26 percent is released.

Families MSC served via LIHEAP in 2000 received an average of $306 to assist them with their energy bills. The average increased to $360 last year and $408 this year. According to the center, the reduced funding and the higher heating bills of clients mean LIHEAP in south King County would serve 704 fewer families than last year and 2,047 fewer than two years ago. The figures take into account the reduction in funding an the higher per-household awards.

"And yet the demand, due to the economic downturn, has increased exponentially," Hohenstein said.

MSC bases the need for LIHEAP assistance on the weekly count of families using the center’s food bank. In September 2001, about 180 families a week used the food bank. This year, 1,050 families were served the week before Thanksgiving.

Families affected by a LIHEAP cutback wouldn’t necessarily be left with no way to pay their heating bills. Puget Sound Energy earlier this year started HELP, a program that will provide almost $9 million a year in utility-bill assistance. It can assist approximately 20,000 low-income households, said Roger Thompson, a spokesman for the utility.

Of the utility’s 950,000 electrical customers systemwide, about 150,000 may be eligible for some sort of assistance. They range from seniors living on Social Security to families that may need temporary aid until a laid-off breadwinner gets another job, Thompson said.

Under the new program, “more of our customers now can obtain assistance. And for the first time, they can bill-payment help year-round,” said Todd Starnes, a customer services manager.

MSC is one of 11 community agencies administering the HELP program.

“Working families and fixed-income seniors are struggling to make ends meet. This new program comes at a crucial time,” said Dini Duclos, chief executive officer of MSC.

Editor Pat Jenkins can be reached at 925-5565 and

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