Tens of thousands of low-income Kentucky families could be without heating assistance this winter because of a dramatic cut in federal funding.
The federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, has allocated $24 million to Kentucky. With $3 million left over from last year, Kentucky has about $27 million for the program. For the past two years, the state had been allocated about $60 million and had used almost all of it each year.
Officials worry that little money will be left to help people in crisis during the coldest part of winter. The program has two parts. First, millions are allocated to families during a subsidy phase that helps all eligible households. To be eligible, families must be at or below 130 percent of federal poverty guidelines. Whatever money is left from the subsidy phase is used to assist families with heating crises brought on by an inability to pay natural gas or electricity bills or to buy fuels.
In 2010, the state spent $16.2 million assisting 113,900 families with subsidies. It then spent $41.7 million helping more than 190,000 families in crisis, said Mark Cornett, a state deputy commissioner overseeing the Department for Community Based Services, which supervises LIHEAP for the state.
"In the last two or three years, we've gotten more than double the funding, so having money left for the crisis time has not been a problem," Cornett said. "This year, it appears with the funding level that we will likely have very little left over for crisis."
Beyond that, officials and program administrators are hopeful that Congress will appropriate more money and that this winter will be mild.
The funding is based on the president's budget, and the U.S. House of Representatives has proposed a smaller cut to LIHEAP funding, said Jack Burch, executive director of the Community Action Council. Community Action agencies around Kentucky run the program for the state.
"I think we will have a cut, but I don't think it will be nearly that drastic," he said.
Unless Congress acts to reduce President Barack Obama's proposed cuts to the program, it's nearly certain that Kentucky will run out of crisis funding based on past trends.
Burch also expects the drop in funding will come on top of even greater need.
"We've got more people who never ever needed help not being able to make ends meet now," Burch said. "We're constantly seeing people coming in for help that we've never seen before, and our assistance database goes back 15 years."
To remedy that, Burch said, the organization is seeking more private donations to supplement the public money.
As part of that, the group is talking with utilities about launching a large publicity campaign for the WinterCare program, in which Kentucky Utilities and Columbia Gas of Kentucky customers may donate money for those in need.
KU spokesman Cliff Feltham and Columbia Gas spokeswoman Lisa Smith also encouraged customers to sign up for budget billing, in which utility costs are spread out evenly over a year rather than in each month as they are incurred.
"That's when they really get dinged, is when those large bills come in over wintertime," Feltham said.
The state Public Service Commission encourages families to spend time weatherizing their homes while the weather is relatively nice.
PSC spokesman Andrew Melnykovych said it could be as simple as buying a tube of caulk to close leaks in windows and doors.
"In the long run, weatherization will save you," he said. "The LIHEAP money is a one-time fix for people. Weatherization is a long-term fix."
As winter progresses and LIHEAP money potentially runs out, the PSC might be a place for customers in crisis. Melnykovych said the commission has gotten involved in the past in individual cases "simply because people call us for assistance in dealing with their utilities and trying to find some way to maintain service."
"We can certainly assist people in working out individual payment arrangements with their utility company if possible," he said.
Burch also encouraged families to use less energy.
"It's amazing how many people, regardless of income, go to work every day and leave their thermostats at 72," he said. "I think education is the best investment. Put on an extra sweater.
"I live in a large old house and don't want to pay monster bills, so I wear an extra sweater."