Federal home heating assistance program is safe, for now

MILTON, Vt. — The federal program that helps low-income people heat their homes in the winter and, in some areas, cool them in the summer has been saved from elimination in the just-passed federal budget.

While that's good news for people who used the program in the just-finished heating season, next year's funding will have to be negotiated by Congress as part of next year's federal spending.

Hundreds of thousands of people across the United States rely on the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to help heat and cool their homes and make their homes more energy efficient.

In Vermont, known for its frigid winters that challenges many low-income residents to heat their homes, this year's federal block grant of $18.9 million is helping about 20,000 people heat their homes or make renovations so their homes will be more energy efficient, which in the long run saves money.

Todd Alexander, 55, a disabled painting contractor from Milton, Vermont, has been a LIHEAP recipient for years, both for heating assistance and upgrades to the insulation and heating system of his 1979 mobile home, where he has lived for 22 years.

"I try to get across to these people that this helps low-income people that are working. This isn't just about people, as they say ... doing nothing on welfare, and that's what really upsets me," said Alexander, who noted he burned the 125 gallons of kerosene he used courtesy of LIHEAP this winter, but his assistance has been decreasing for several years.

Bobby Arnell, the director of Vermont's LIHEAP program, said, "It did come as a surprise that Trump's proposed budget proposed to eliminate the program completely, since we had been adjusting to significant decreases in funding over the last few years."

For homes in the Northeast, which rely heavily on heating oil, the average heating cost this winter was $1,227, federal statistics show.

The National Energy Assistance Directors' Association says that nationwide, the average heating cost for low-income households was $783 this winter, and the average LIHEAP grant was about $458 and was available only to about 20 percent of eligible households.

In March, President Donald Trump proposed cutting about 10 percent from the current fiscal year's LIHEAP payment, money that had not yet been delivered to the states. He also proposed eliminating the program entirely for the federal budget that begins Oct. 1, which would include the 2017-2018 heating season.

But in the spending plan for the remainder of this fiscal year approved by Congress this week, lawmakers restored the final 10 percent, or about $3.4 billion nationwide, of LIHEAP funding for the current fiscal year.

Lawmakers are beginning the process of preparing the fiscal year 2018 budget that would include LIHEAP funding for next winter. David Carle, a spokesman for Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, said LIHEAP remains a priority for Leahy.

In southern Maine, Barbara Crider, of the York County Communication Action Corporation, said people are waiting to see what happens next. Maine's congressional delegation has been supportive.

"The fight for LIHEAP isn't over going forward," she said.

Ann Chabot, 60, of Belmont, New Hampshire, has been receiving LIHEAP benefits for fuel oil for at least 10 years. It has come in handy, especially during the times she had to leave her jobs to take care of her disabled mother and brother full time. Today, she is looking for work to help pay off her home in a few years, so the fuel benefit still makes a difference.

"It's a really needed program," she said. "I would be so lost; I wouldn't know what to do without it. I don't want to be out on the streets, I don't want to lose my home, and I certainly don't want to lose fuel, because we need that. We need all the help we can get."