More seek help with heat bill

By MARA HOPLAMAZIAN

New Hampshire Public Radio

Published: 10-17-2023 5:15 PM

As temperatures cool, heating bills are starting to kick in for Granite Staters. But even as the cost of energy goes down a bit this winter compared to last year’s particularly difficult heating season, the need for fuel and electric assistance seems to be increasing.

Calls to the state’s help hotline, 211, have gone up 11% overall this year, according to Stephanie Turek, the senior vice president of impact with Granite United Way. She says they’ve seen a 52% increase in calls specifically about fuel assistance.

“We are hearing from people that we've never heard from before, that are truly reaching out for the first time and have no sense of what resources may be available, but just do not have a budget that works for the expenses that they have,” she said.

Todd Marsh, the welfare director for the city of Rochester and the president of the New Hampshire Local Welfare Administrators Association, says he’s seeing the same trend. With the end of pandemic-era rental aid from the federal government and the cost of living going up, people are dealing with new challenges, he said. Family budgets are less resilient.

“They're having increased difficulty making their ends meet. And those ends are further apart than they were in years past,” he said. “A car inspection resulting in the need of a tire or new brakes – because of that decreased budget resiliency – is increasingly resulting in the inability to pay rent, or the inability to pay a utility bill, or the inability to pay a heating bill.”

Meanwhile, a state-funded emergency energy assistance program created by the Legislature last winter to serve people above the income limits for federal fuel assistance has ended, with the vast majority of the $35 million dollars allocated for that program unspent.

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That money was put back into the state’s general fund, according to Chris Ellms, the deputy director of the state’s Department of Energy.

“The Legislature intended the emergency energy assistance programs to be one-time funding opportunities,” he said in an email. “New Hampshire’s Fuel Assistance Program and Electric Assistance Program continue to provide benefits to help New Hampshire households with energy costs. We encourage customers to reach out to their local Community Action Agencies to learn more or to apply for assistance.”

Last winter’s expensive heating season had a long-lasting impact on some New Hampshire residents, and advocates said some changes to how the state manages applications for the biggest source of heating assistance – the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program – could help.

In New Hampshire, applications have happened largely on paper, without a streamlined online system, like the ones that exist in most other New England states. And some states use “categorical eligibility,” which makes it easier for people already enrolled in certain other government programs to get fuel assistance.

Ellms said the Department of Energy is continuing to discuss how to make the application process easier with the state’s community action agencies.

He did not directly respond to a question about categorical eligibility, but said three of the state’s five agencies provide some method for applying electronically, through an online application or forms that can be completed online and submitted via email.

A fully online application form, which will include the ability to upload files and sign electronically, is expected next summer, according to Ellms.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.