As special federal funding that boosted Connecticut’s energy assistance program for the last three years fades away, social services are hoping for a warm winter so the state’s poorest residents can afford heat.
Prices for heating oil, natural gas and electricity all reached record highs last winter, and with customers facing massive spikes in their bills, demand for state aid was as high as ever.
Joanne Balaschak, who heads the heating assistance program for New Opportunities – the community agency serving the Waterbury and Meriden areas – said last year had the most applications for heating assistance she’s seen in nearly 40 years.
Statewide, 127,423 people applied for heating assistance last year, up 21 percent from the year before, and up 44 percent from 2021. New Opportunities alone saw 27,630 applications, up nearly 25 percent from the prior year.
And Balaschak said they’ve seen more than 100 applicants a day since the program opened on Sept. 1. She expects most of the people approved last year will apply again, as the price of heating is expected to remain high this winter.
“It’s going to be an eye opener,” Balaschak said. “Last year, someone that heats with a deliverable fuel [like oil] could receive up to $2,200 in assistance. This year, it’s down to $1,350. The $850 difference is significant.”
At the current statewide average price of $4.06 a gallon, filling a 275-gallon oil tank just one time would cost more than $1,100. On the most expensive week of the year in 2021, it would have cost about $925, according to pricing data collected by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. And during the most expensive week in 2019, it would have cost $810.
Fuel deliveries paid by the program start on Nov. 1, but prices remain unknown. Last year, the price of oil spiked as high as $5.93 per gallon in November, up about 80 percent from the $3.27 average price that same week in 2021.
For the upcoming year, the state will receive $75.4 million from a federal block grant that acts as the main source of funding for energy assistance – about $200,000 more than it received in 2019.
But the last three years were also bolstered by other federal funding. Including COVID aid, ARPA funds and a special supplement Congress approved last year, Connecticut had $117.5 million for the program in 2021, $140 million in 2022, and $122.4 million last year.
With that additional funding gone this year, the state has just $84.8 million, with the Department of Social Services estimating demand to be 10 percent higher.
Less money and more demand led to the maximum benefit being cut from $2,320 last year to $1,350 this year.
Elizabeth Vinik, head of the energy assistance program at Community Renewal Team, covering most of Hartford and Middlesex counties, said the reduced benefit makes it more important for customers to avoid emergency deliveries, or deliveries of fewer than 100 gallons because they come with additional charges.
“Having a warm winter would be great,” she said.
Balaschak said the state has been lucky lately with mild winters, but one year that could change and the need for heat will increase. The weather and the price of oil, gas or electricity is all unknown at this point, but if it’s significantly colder this winter, people could use up their assistance in a couple of months, she said.
State Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, who in 1983 was a social services employee doing home visits as part of the energy assistance program, pressed lawmakers at a hearing last month to allocate more money toward the program, telling them people who can’t pay for heating are put on a dangerous and slippery slope.
Kelly told CT Examiner that the state has to do a better job of fostering an economy where people can earn a living wage. But in the short term, when the state is “flush with cash,” they need to focus on helping people who need heating assistance now so their situation doesn’t worsen.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, said energy assistance isn’t the only program losing COVID-era federal funding.
There are about 30 federal programs that state lawmakers need to monitor to ensure they can continue, including SNAP and Medicaid, she said.
Osten suggested lawmakers could appropriate more energy assistance money when they go back into session in February. But right now, she said, they aren’t sure the program will need more funds.
Lawmakers appropriated $30 million of the state’s ARPA money to the program last year, with the condition that the money wouldn’t be used until all federal funds for the program were spent.
It wasn’t, so the money the state set aside went unused. But Kelly questioned why that money wasn’t rolled over to use for the program this year, considering it would make up for most of the lost federal funding.
Balaschak said the fact that the money wasn’t used doesn’t mean there wasn’t a need. The state always has leftover money, she said, but people were out of oil.
“When do they decide to add more money to the benefits rather than just keep them as they are and ignore the need?” she asked.
Can the federal government help?
In a letter to the Congressional Appropriation Committees on Tuesday, Connecticut Consumer Counsel Claire Coleman said heating assistance funding won’t be high enough to face a “growing energy burden” in New England.
The Energy Information Administration projected New England electric prices this winter will be similar to last year. Coleman said volatile global energy markets, severe weather, climate change and significant infrastructure upgrades will continue to hike prices in the future.
“Energy assistance funding must be a priority,” she said.
Osten said Connecticut will always put pressure on the federal government to put more money toward heating assistance, but heating oil in particular is a larger issue in the Northeast than elsewhere in the country.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, told CT Examiner he pushed for a $75 million boost to the program in this year’s budget, and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said he’s pushed for the highest levels of funding because “no one should have to choose between keeping the lights and heat on or putting food on the table.”
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said she will also continue to fight for supplemental money for the program “when demand has outweighed the initial allocations,” adding that the ability to heat a home is an issue of public health, not comfort.
But Murphy laid the blame on House Republicans, who he said have to “come to the table” for Congress to pass a full-year budget that includes more funding.
“We certainly still need assistance,” Kelly said. “When Washington fails to do its job, Connecticut needs to step up and make sure that we do ours.”
Eversource and United Illuminating customers with electric heat could see relief from a new low-income discount rate beginning in January, but Balaschak said she’s worried the cost of electricity has risen so high that a discount rate won’t benefit the people who need the most help.
Under the new program, customers earning less than 60 percent of the state median income [$76,465 for a family of four] will be eligible for a 10 percent discount on their monthly bill. Households earning up to 160 percent of the federal poverty guideline [$44,400 for a family of four] will be eligible for a 50 percent discount.
Balaschak said the program would leave the poorest customers paying more than they do under the status quo. Now, the agency signs the poorest customers up for a “below budget” payment plan that can cap their monthly bill as low as $50, she said.
“The issue is that the amount of money people pay for heating with electric is very high, and even if you reduce it by 50 percent, it’s really high,” Balaschak said. “Just the other day, we had a customer come in who heats with electricity and their bill is $1,000 a month. On the below budget worksheet, they’re paying maybe $200 to $300 a month, but now they’re going to pay $500.”
“People have been fighting for a discount rate forever,” she continued. “And years and years ago, the cost of electricity or gas wasn’t as high as it is now, so maybe a discounted rate would have worked. But I don’t know. I have so many reservations about that. To me, it’s scary.”