MERIDEN — As outdoor temperatures rapidly dipped over the past week, residents, elected leaders, energy suppliers and advocates alike have renewed concerns about whether the area’s most vulnerable residents will be able to afford to keep their homes heated this winter.
Those concerns come amid the simple fact that home heating costs are soaring. As of Nov. 14, home heating oil prices across Connecticut had averaged around $5.64 a gallon, according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. A year earlier, the average cost of home heating oil was $3.28 per gallon, the agency reported. So within a one-year span home heating oil costs have risen nearly 72%.
The amount of federal funding the state has received to date to administer the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, referred to as LIHEAP, this winter now stands at around $99 million, following Gov. Ned Lamont’s announcement on Thursday that the state’s federal delegation had secured an additional $19 million in funding to the state through that program.Increased costs,declining benefits
The state’s Department of Social Services developed a tiered plan to distribute funds based on residents’ income and the previous funding level of $79 million. That plan would provide $550 worth of heating oil to non-vulnerable residents — and $600 to vulnerable residents — whose incomes are at or below federal poverty levels. The plan factors in an anticipated caseload of 96,600 residents statewide. The plan includes crisis assistance deliveries, with the first benefit being $430.
The amounts of funding to be distributed through that plan are far below the amounts the state had doled out to LIHEAP participants a year earlier — when officials supplemented the state’s LIHEAP funds with federal coronavirus relief funds.
State Rep. Mary Mushinsky said she has been in contact with the state Office of Fiscal Analysis and reached out to U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s office. Mushinsky noted that with the influx of federal relief funds, the state’s total LIHEAP funds in 2021 totaled around $120 million.
“So we’ve got $21 million less than during the pandemic year and there’s a price increase in fuel,” Mushinsky said, adding that the number of applicants for the program is expected to increase by 5%.
Mushinsky said typically the state gets a supplemental LIHEAP payment from the federal government in January. She doesn’t anticipate that changing even with the change of party control in Congress that will come in January.
“I don’t think either side is going to want to have the states run out of LIHEAP money,” Mushinsky said.
“Doing the math, you can see that there’s more expense on the price of the fuel and then slightly less money in 2021 — that means we won’t have enough. We’re going to be short on the funding,” Mushinsky said.
The funding is distributed to qualifying residents through community action agencies, like New Opportunities Inc., which serves 60 communities, including Meriden, Waterbury and Torrington.
Joanne Balaschak, New Opportunities’ director of energy programs, noted that last year residents who qualified for benefits were able to receive up to $3,000 worth of home heating oil. This year, those same residents may only be eligible to receive $730 in benefits, factoring in their initial deliveries and crisis deliveries, Balashack noted.
“It’s going to be unbelievable,” Balaschak said.
Deliveries began on Nov. 1.
But Balaschak is concerned that some residents with the highest level of need, including the elderly and those with disabilities, may run out of fuel by Thanksgiving.
“It’s very scary,” she said.
Bracing for increased need
Gannon Long is policy and public affairs director for another program, Operation Fuel, which provides year-round energy and utility assistance to state residents, including those who may not qualify for relief under LIHEAP.
Long said in 2021 the organization served more than 9,000 households. This year, Operation Fuel is on track to process even more assistance applications. During the summer alone, the agency served 4,500 residents — an unprecedented number, Long said. The agency is bracing for a winter with potentially greater numbers.
Long noted that even in years less impacted by inflation and soaring heating costs, LIHEAP funding has been insufficient, not just in Connecticut, but nationwide.
“In a typical year, LIHEAP is enough to cover 25% of the people who actually qualify for it. That’s a really low percentage,” Long said. “Operation Fuel and other advocates had pointed out for a long time that this is not sufficient.
“At the end of the day, I’m hoping the governor and the legislature are able to do whatever helps the most vulnerable residents,” Long said. “…The most important thing is that people have heat this winter.”
Chris Herb, president of the Connecticut Energy Marketers Association, a statewide oil and gas distributors trade group, shares that concern. Herb said the combination of increased costs and insufficient funding “is going to put more pressure on customers already under economic pressure to afford those bills.”
Herb said his group has been advocating for Congress to authorize additional funding to keep up with the costs of inflation.
“It’s important for Congress to step up and fill this gap that’s going to occur,” Herb said.
The gap will impact the companies that distribute home heating oil. Herb said there are around 600 heating oil dealers across the state and the majority of them are small, family-owned businesses.
“This puts a lot of pressure on them,” Herb said. “We’re the ones who are ultimately responsible for making sure the health and safety of residents is met.”
Herb said unlike other federal assistance programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, where retailers are fully compensated for the food products they provide, heating oil distributors that participate in those programs “are expected to take steep cuts.”
“We’re not paid the full rate, like food assistance,” Herb said.
Herb urged residents concerned about their ability to afford to heat their homes to explore all assistance programs available. Operation Fuel is another assistance program they may qualify for.
“Don’t give up,” Herb said.
Awaiting further action from Congress
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s office, in response to a question from a reporter, issued a statement regarding LIHEAP funds.
“My office has heard from many constituents who are concerned about the costs of home heating oil and the winter ahead,” Blumenthal said. “While Connecticut has received $107.8 million for LIHEAP, the significantly increased number of applicants combined with high oil and natural gas prices means there might not be enough funds to help everyone in need. I will keep fighting in Congress to bring more funding back to Connecticut because families should never have to choose between putting food on the table or heating their homes.”
Similarly, state Rep. Michael Quinn said he heard residents’ concerns about the cost of heating their homes during the past election cycle.
“If Congress doesn’t act appropriately, I think we’re prepared to push and fight for additional state funding in January,” Quinn said. “... We’re going to be doing whatever we can to address this issue.”
Gov. Lamont, in his announcement, stated that in the coming days his office will call a special session of the General Assembly to adopt legislation focused on providing relief for Connecticut residents, “including by ensuring our energy assistance program is adequately funded to at least last year’s level so support is available for electricity and heating oil costs.”
That announcement levied criticisms at the state’s largest electric utility providers, who Lamont stated “are enjoying historic profits at the same time electric generation rates are increasing and customers are experiencing economic hardships, and I call on UI and Eversource to come to the table with solutions that recognize their investors and executives can and should support customers while we work together towards long-term solutions that untether us from the volatility of global fossil fuel markets.”
That announcement comes a bit too late for legislators like state Rep. Vincent Candelora, of North Branford, the House Republican Minority Leader, who said his caucus had been advocating since August to make sure that state-run programs, like heating assistance, are fully funded. He noted the number of households expected to utilize those funds was expected to increase by 5%.
“The other piece we’re advocating for is increasing income eligibility,” Candelora said, noting that struggling households don’t just include those whose incomes fall within federal poverty guidelines.
Candelora said his party’s caucus was accused of being political for raising concerns at the time while he said Democrats had dismissed them.
“But had we addressed it in August, we would be in a very different position now,” Candelora said.
State Rep. Hilda Santiago of Meriden said she has received concerns from constituents about heating costs and electric rates going up.
Santiago said lawmakers will look to put more money into heating assistance during the special session.
Santiago said all residents who are concerned about their heating costs should reach out to New Opportunities and apply to Operation Fuel.
“We might have put more into Operation Fuel,” Santiago said, adding, “If it seems by January or so the funds are getting depleted, we can go back to the legislature, especially for Operation Fuel.”