Officials who administer financial aid to those unable to pay their heating or electricity bills say they expect to see more applications for assistance this year — thanks in part to a frigid winter.
With Monday marking the end of the disconnection moratorium for qualified low-income customers, some area residents could be at risk of having their heat shut off.
“We are expecting about a 9 percent increase this year in applications,” said Amy Becker, Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program supervisor with Hawkeye Area Community Action Program. “There’s a variety of reasons why that is, but I would believe the harsh winter is a part of that.”
Individuals have until the end of April to apply for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which uses federal funds to pay for a portion of an eligible customer’s energy or heating bill.
Becker said HACAP had taken just shy of 7,600 applications for assistance as of March 25. Of those, 7,000 households have been approved.
The program — which serves Linn, Benton, Johnson, Jones, Iowa and Washington counties — saw about 7,800 applications during the 2018 program year, which spans Oct. 1 through April 30. About 7,300 of those applications were approved.
During the 2017 program year, about 7,150 applications were received and 6,600 were approved.
With program funding this year at about $54.5 million statewide, comparable to 2018, a similar number of applications are expected to be approved for 2019, said Christine Taylor, bureau chief of the Iowa Department of Human Rights, which oversees the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
All told, Iowa saw around 83,000 households approved for assistance during the 2018 program year.
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Utility companies cannot shut off heat or power to homes of Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program participants between Nov. 1 and April 1. However, customers still are responsible for any accrued bill payments at the end of that period. Those who are not up to date could see their power shut off.
Taylor said, as of February, more than 41,700 program-eligible accounts were past due — accounting for $12.5 million in owed utility payments.
What’s more, it wasn’t until late into winter that cold temperatures began to slam the Midwest.
“So people are just starting to get those bills from that terrible polar vortex, and we anticipate seeing a lot more people this year coming in for crisis. We’ll be surprised if we don’t,” she said.
The end of this year’s disconnection moratorium doesn’t automatically mean program participants will find themselves without power.
Taylor and Becker said they encourage those struggling to pay their bills or looking for weatherization assistance to reach out to their local providers.
In addition, Alliant Energy and MidAmerican Energy offer customers financial assistance programs.
To be eligible for Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program assistance, a household’s total income must be at or below 175 percent of the 2017 federal poverty line. That would come to $21,245 for a single person and $43,925 for a family of four.
Taylor said the average program payment is about $470. For those on a fixed budget, who are more likely to reside in a home that lacks in energy efficiencies, that may only cover a few months.
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“We have quite a few people who have $200 to $300 a month as far as electric bills,” Taylor said. “It’s a tough situation. They’re having to make the choice between heating their home or keeping the lights on or eating or getting medication.”
In response to flooding, the Iowa Utilities Board on Friday issued an emergency order extending the end of the winter moratorium until May 1. The extension applies to qualified customers within counties where a disaster has been declared.
Fifty-seven Iowa counties have state disaster declarations, and 56 have federal disaster declaration. In Eastern Iowa, declarations have been made in Allamakee, Bremer, Butler, Fayette, Tama and Winneshiek counties.
Find your local Hawkeye Area Community Action Program office:
• Linn County: Urban Center, 1328 Second Ave. SE., Cedar Rapids. 319-366-7632
• Johnson County: Waterfront Office, 367 Southgate Ave., Iowa City 319-337-5765
• Jones County: HACAP, 105 Broadway Place, Suite 17, Anamosa. 319-462-4343
• Washington County: Orchard Hill, 2175 Lexington Boulevard, Building 1, Washington. 319-653-7275
• Benton County: North Benton Center, 202 E. Fourth St., Vinton. 319-472-4761
• Iowa County: Outreach site, Marengo Public Library, 235 E. Hilton St., Marengo. 319-393-7811
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