As winter approaches, with the average price of heating oil in October increasing from $1.97 a gallon in 2020 to $5.71 this year, and with energy costs slated to rise still more, social service advocates are raising growing concerns that the existing energy assistance programs won’t be able to meet the public need this year without a significant boost of federal funding.
Deborah Monahan, executive director of Thames Valley Council for Community Action – the community action agency in New London County – said that at this time last year, the agency had taken in about 4,400 applications for assistance.
This year, they have already seen 5,100 applications – and the state opened applications a month later this year, on Sept. 1 instead of Aug. 1.
Junior Mendez, energy program manager for the Community Action Agency of Western Connecticut – which serves 25 municipalities near the New York border in Litchfield and Fairfield counties – said they have seen about 250 more applications this year than at the same point last year.
“You can already see the difference there, and my staff tell me all the time that we’re just very, very busy with the energy program,” Monahan said.
When the Connecticut Department of Social Services drew up its plan for the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program this year, it projected the program would serve about 96,600 – an increase from 92,000 last year and 73,200 the year before.
As of Oct. 1 – the most recent data available at publication – the state had received 19,593 applications in the first month of accepting them. At the same time last year – with applications having been open for two months – the state had received 21,357 applications, according to DSS.
At the same time as public interest is increasing, the state has far less funding for its energy assistance program this year than in the past two years. Last year, there was a record high $140 million available, with $62 million coming in the form of federal COVID assistance that has since expired.
This year, there is about $79 million available for the program from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP – and with the state expecting even more requests for assistance, it lowered the amount each household can receive in assistance.
Last year, the minimum amount one household would receive for the season was about $2,000, and now people on the higher end of eligible incomes will only receive $600 or $700 – about one delivery of oil, Mendez said
And the cost of heating has risen dramatically over the past two years: with the average price of heating oil during the last week of October in Connecticut increasing from from $1.97 per gallon in 2020, to $3.36 in 2021, and to $5.71 this year, according to data collected by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
And Connecticut electric customers are facing a 40 percent increase to their Eversource bills starting in January, with the high price of natural gas driving up the cost to generate electricity in gas-dominated New England. Eversource gas customers are facing a 20 percent increase in their bills.
With oil prices averaging about $5.30 to $5.60, even the highest benefit of $1,890 would buy a household about 400 gallons of oil, Monahan said.
“That’s not a whole lot of oil for the winter,” Monahan said. “But it’s a good help for people.”
There are still a lot of unknowns about the program, mainly because of how volatile oil prices have been – but also because it’s unclear how much funding will ultimately be available, Monahan said.
More funding could mean increased benefit amounts, or the ability to aid more people if enrollment is higher than the state projected.
A continuing resolution to fund the federal government through mid-December included $1 billion in additional LIHEAP funding, including about $20 million expected to boost Connecticut’s heating assistance program.
But that still leaves the program about $40 million short of its funding from last year, with the need proving to be higher this year.
Mendez said it’s been a very long time since the program ran out of money and had to stop making grants. But Michelle James, executive director of the Community Action Agency of Western Connecticut, said that if they award all of the money that’s been allocated to their agency, they would have to stop providing assistance for the season, she said.
“We have not gotten to that point in the 10 years that I’ve been here, but this year could be different,” James said.
“The demand is very high,” Mendez added. “And the money is not there [like in previous years].”
Brenda Watson, executive director of Operation Fuel, said she was concerned that the dramatically higher demand for assistance will mean their program will run out of funding.
Operation Fuel is separate from the state energy assistance program. Though both were established in response to the 1979 oil crisis, the LIHEAP program is aimed at people earning less than 60 percent of the state median income, while Operation Fuel is meant mainly to help people who don’t qualify for government assistance, but still struggle to pay for fuel and electricity.
In a typical summer-to-fall season, Operation Fuel serves around 2,000 households. This season, Watson said Operation Fuel had served its 4,000th household about three weeks ago. The demand has never been this high at this time of year – usually the high demand comes in the “peak winter” months starting in January, Watson said.
And with the price of oil so high, fuel vendors have asked Operation Fuel to increase its grant amount, since the usual maximum of $500 isn’t getting customers very far, Watson said.
“It’s a little scary, because it could mean that we have to pull back assistance in the spring of 2023,” Watson said. “We don’t know that for sure yet, but if we keep on this track, it might be that we have to lower the grant amount, or even turn people away.”
Even with reduced funding, the $100 million state program dwarfs Operation Fuel’s $6 million budget, but demand at Operation Fuel could be even higher if the state program is forced to turn people away, Watson said.
Despite the lower funding and major spike in requests for assistance, Monahan was confident that there would be enough funding for the state program to make it through the winter. More federal funding would be a huge help, but Monahan said she was confident that state lawmakers would step in if they needed to boost the program.
“The state legislators in Connecticut are all keenly aware that, if we have a cold winter and no additional federal dollars come through, they’re going to have to take some action,” Monahan said.
Concerns about funding should not keep anyone from applying for help, the community action agencies said. Anyone who needs assistance can contact their local community action agency to apply, or apply online. Electric and gas heating customers can also contact their utility company or 211 for other assistance options.
“We don’t want people to freeze, so we are here to serve,” James said.