Heat worker Tyrone Bonner takes a breather as Noreen Norton assists a client on the phone. Since after Christmas the two of them have been doubling up their case loads trying to serve as many households as possible with HEAT assistance until the funding runs out.
The bitter cold of early December has given way to a milder start to the new year, but for Carbon County residents struggling to make ends meet with their heating bills, the warmth of summer is still far away. Colette Freestone with the Southeast Utah HEAT program states that the program is on track to serve more people this winter than last year. This will happen even though they have had to cut their budget 23 percent over last year.
In 2010, the Heat program served 1,005 households. This year, so far, they have helped 723 and have people booked with appointments through the end of January. The next appointments available will be in February.
Freestone is encouraging anyone who needs assistance and is low income to contact the program as soon as possible for an appointment. She emphasizes that people do not need to wait until they are past due or have a shut off notice before seeking help. Rather it is best to come in early so there are no additional fees and penalties that would take up valuable resources.
There are many factors that help determine eligibility so it is best for applicants to call and make an appointment if they are unsure if they meet the criteria. Staff will provide a list of documentation needed to process the application. Those too vary with each household make-up.
Once a person is found eligible, the funds take about four weeks to become available. They are issued as a credit to the utility company. The credits can be split up between two sources like Price City and Mountain Fuel. The program can also be used toward propane.
If heating costs are included in rent, documentation would be required from the land lord statement as to what portion of rent is for heating and a credit can be issued for that.
The HEAT program is a federally funded program. There has been uncertainty about the funding levels for this year since last March. Freestone was advised to slash their budget by 50 percent. Unable to do that the program was asked to meet a 30 percent reduction. Immediately they implemented a cut in the awards to each household. Last year the standard benefit was close to $500, this year it averages from $322-$350.
Even as they went into the year, there was no guarantee of what the funding would be. At one point the president was recommending about $2.6 billion for the program. That would have been a 50 percent reduction from 2010 funding. But in the end Congress pressed forward with $3.5 billion and the cuts stayed at about 23 percent.
With the uncertainty of money, the program served only the top three needs: Low income seniors 60 and over: households with individuals with documented disabilities; and households with children under five. As soon as the budget was finalized the staff began doubling up their case load to serve as many of the other eligible house holds as possible.
The program runs through April or until funds are depleted. Freestone says they seldom make it to April before the money is gone. Next year's funding levels also remain uncertain as congress and the president battle it out on reducing the nation's deficit.
The HEAT program has also implemented an energy saving component as part of a way to educate the clients on how to reduce their heating bill as much as possible. Referrals are also given to the weatherization program. Freestone admits that sometimes it is difficult for renters to make any significant changes to improve the energy efficiency of their homes unless the landlord is willing to help.
People who need assistance with their heating bills or know of someone who might qualify should call the HEAT program at 435 613-0100 as soon as possible. Appointments for the rest of the year will fill up fast.