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Paynesville Press - December 8, 2004

Energy assistance programs ready to help

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

Area residents struggling to meet the rising cost of heating their homes can get help.

The Energy Assistance Program - a federally-funded program, administered by the state - can help low-income residents pay their heating bills. Grant money from the program is distributed locally by Tri-CAP in Stearns County and by Heartland Community Action in Meeker and Kandiyohi counties.

Emergency help is available for families who face having their power turned off because they can't pay their bill, who are nearly out of fuel and can't pay for a delivery, or who need to replace or repair their furnaces and can't afford it.

Households where the primary source of income comes from minimum-wage jobs are the main targets of energy assistance funds, according to Pat Cavazos of Heartland Community Action. Households whose income are less than 50 percent of the state's median income can qualify.

Income guidelines, to determine eligibility for assistance, apply to the three-month period prior to applying: the three-month income for a single person must be less than $4,704; for a family of two $6,125; for a family of three $7,599; for a family of four $9,074; for a family of five $10,494; for a family of six $11,942; for a family of seven $12,213; and for a family of eight $12,485.

To apply for the Energy Assistance Program in Stearns County, call Tri-CAP at 1-888-765-5597 or apply online at In Meeker or Kandiyohi counties, call Heartland Community Action at 1-320-235-2850 for an application. Residents who qualify for help are given grants, which are paid directly to the power company or fuel provider. Statewide, the average grant amount is about $400.

According to Cavazos, families who qualify for energy assistance rarely live in new, energy-effecient homes. Because of this, fix-up funds are also available to winterize homes in order to help reduce heating costs. Anyone receiving energy assistance qualifies for fix-up funds, but because these funds are limited, priority is given to senior citizens and the handicapped.

Many families fall into a grey area where they make too much money to qualify for the Energy Assistance Program, but circumstances - like a medical emergency or other crisis - make it difficult to pay the bills, said Cavazos. Reach Out for Warmth can help those families.

Also administered by Tri-CAP and Heartland Community Action, Reach Out for Warmth uses private funds - which are matched two-to-one by the state - to provide a one-time-per-year emergency grant of up to $350 to keep the power on or to have fuel delivered.

The Energy Assistance Program was started in 1988 and serves thousands of people statewide each year. Last year Tri-CAP helped 4,053 households in three counties and ran out of funds. Heartland Community Action provided assistance to 3,000 households last year.

Cavazos would like to help more households, but because the state mandates that gross income be considered instead of net income, she fears that some families might fall through the cracks, especially those who make slightly more than the guidelines but spend a lot on insurance or daycare. Nobody should have to have to decide between paying for heat or insurance, she said.

Both agencies are currently running about a month behind in processing applications, so applicants should be patient, said Donna Rambler of Tri-CAP. Any applicants with emergency situations will be processed immediately, Rambler added.

Applications must be completed every year, said Rambler, because financial situations change and a household that qualified last year may not qualify this year. However, residents who received energy assistance last year should automatically have been sent an application for this year.

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