More seek help with heating bills in NorthlandMore people are seeking fuel assistance in the Northland this year, though expected fuel cost increases aren’t being blamed.
By: Candace Renalls, Duluth News Tribune, Pine Journal
More people are seeking fuel assistance in the Northland this year, though expected fuel cost increases aren’t being blamed.
Instead, experts are pointing to the sluggish economy as the reason for the greater numbers seeking help.
“There’s more people in this economy who are in trouble,” said Mary Heilman, energy assistance coordinator for the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency. “We have an awful lot of people laid off of work. With this economy, there’s just more people who need help.”
The agency providing heating assistance grants to low-income residents in St. Louis, Lake and Carlton counties has received 10 percent more applications than last year.
So far, 7,300 households have signed up, about 600 more than this time last year. And before the money runs out, more than last season’s nearly 11,000 are expected to apply.
Those who received the federal fuel assistance grants last year automatically got applications in the mail, reminding them to sign up again if they still qualify for the income-based grants.
“People who have been on the program know that it’s first-come, first-served,” Heilman said.
While returning participants are a contributing factor, it’s new applicants who are driving the increase, said Martin Lepak who’s with the agency’s Duluth office.
“We’re seeing not as much work, especially with construction and seasonal jobs, so household income is less than previous years,” he said. “Therefore, people are getting prepared. If there’s something to help them out, they do that at the soonest opportunity.”
Moreover, the agency is encouraging people to apply early, Heilman noted.
“It doesn’t look like we’ll have the same amount of money as in recent years,” she said. “When we’re out, we’re out.”
The grants, which start at $100, generally go directly to fuel vendors or utilities. Amounts are based on the household’s previous three months’ gross income. For a single person, the limit is $5,655; for a family of four: $10,875.
Minnesota Power also is seeing more people applying for protection under the Minnesota Cold Weather Rule, which prevents power shutoffs between Oct. 15 and April 15 if they can’t pay their bills.
“If they are struggling to pay our bills, we encourage our customers to apply,” said Amy Rutledge, Minnesota Power spokeswoman. “In order to have this protection, they need to call and set up a payment plan.”
As of last week, 200 people had applied, compared to 171 at the same time in 2009.
“We think it’s well ahead of 2008,” Rutledge said, noting the 1,746 total for the 2008-09 season surpassed last year’s total of 1,429.