Merlene Davis: Utilities need to find an easier way for their customers to help those in need

The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Crisis Program began accepting applications Monday in Fayette, Bourbon, Harrison and Nicholas counties through the Community Action Council.

As of Wednesday morning, the program had given out nearly $180,000.

That money helped nearly 800 households avoid having the gas or electric service shut off or running out of heating fuel.

To qualify for the program, applicants whose homes are heated with natural gas or electricity must have a pending disconnection notice or have had their services disconnected, and they must meet federal poverty guidelines.

Charlie Lanter, manager for program development at the Community Action Council, said the agency has $1.16 million for emergency help, which is $240,000 less than last year. And while the amount of federal help has decreased, the need hasn't.

I know. I hear you. It is the same song that was sung last year and the year before that. The holes in the federal safety net for the poor are growing larger each year, saving fewer families.

Congress just isn't letting go of the funding like it once did, and that is hurting the least among us, Lanter said.

So what happens to the poor? What happens to the people who need the lights and the heat that the rest of us take for granted?

Fortunately, there are some relatively painless things you can do to avoid learning the answer to that question.

Kentucky Utilities and Columbia Gas customers may donate one time or on a recurring basis by mail to the WinterCare program. You may add as little as a $1 to your utility bills. I've heard about it for years. But the thing is, I've never done it.

I pay my bills online, through my bank. Once the payment is set up, there is no way to add a note saying "give $1 to WinterCare."

I guess I could send a separate check for the donation, but it wouldn't be on a regular basis, and I would not remember to do that. I want to donate something every month to help close some of the gaps.

When I expressed my frustration, Lanter said there was a way around it for some of us. KU spokesman Cliff Feltham explained that customers who pay their bills at the utility's website,, can sign in and go to "My Account" and make a one-time payment by selecting, "I want to donate to WinterCare," on the "pay bill" screen. All you have to do is enter the amount and submit the payment.

If you want to set up a recurring payment at KU, select the "My Bill" section and then "Help those in need." There you can enter any amount from $1 to $200, which will be added to your monthly bill. KU will match your donation, and you can stop the payments at any time.

That won't work for me, though, because I pay bills through my bank. Feltham said WinterCare donations made electronically through a bank cannot be separated from the KU bill.

To give to WinterCare through Columbia Gas, donations have to be mailed or paid in person. Check the back of your bill for more information. There is no electronic means to designate assistance yet. Lisa Smith, spokeswoman with Columbia Gas, said the utility hoped to have that available soon.

I hope so, too. Both utilities need to find an easier way for us to give. A lot more money could be available. Our donations could help stretch the emergency assistance program beyond the federal boundaries.

Lanter said Community Action would always try to help families, even if the federal money dries up. There are other programs and agencies that can be tapped in a push.

"We will try our best to put together packages with other agencies," he said. "Private money helps fill in the gaps."

That's understandable. What's not understandable is why, in this digital age, there isn't a simple and convenient way to do that.