HEAP cuts will affect thousands in the area

ST. CLAIRSVILLE The repercussions of cuts to funding for the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program would be felt in Belmont County, where about 3,000 people currently use the program.

The Obama Administration has announced plans to cut the program from $5.1 billion to 2008 levels of $2.57 billion for the 2012 fiscal year, starting Oct. 1.

Gary Obloy, director of Belmont County Community Action Commission which runs the county’s federally funded HEAP program said that right now, it looks like the cut per household would be about $100, but could be more. LIHEAP is a federally funded program, and the state sets benefit levels. The program helps to pay for things like home heating oil, electricity, gas, wood and even coal.

“In terms of budget cuts, the potential exists for the benefit levels to be reduced or the income eligibility could be lowered to a lower threshold,” Obloy said. “Right now it’s at 200 percent (of the federal poverty index). Two or three years ago it was at 150 percent. So we could see a scale back of the benefit or the income level to qualify.”

For regulated utilities, like American Electric Power and Columbia Gas, HEAP pays out $175 annually while for unregulated utilities, like South Central Power and municipal utilities the the level is $250.

People that heat with coal or wood can get $350 annual and $600 for those who heat with fuel oil or propane.

“The rational behind the cuts is because of the belief that energy prices are going down,” Obloy said. “It’s the exact opposite of what we are seeing right now. We’ve seen gas prices jump 10 cent in just one day. I’m not sure what fuel heating oil costs are, but I know the other day they were about $3.50 a gallon.”

The Obama Administration claims that forecasts predict “relatively moderate price increases” for winter 2011-12 compared to this winter, with prices remaining well below the peaks experienced in 2008.

Those who could be most affected by the cut are working class people, those who are laid off and the retired.

“I would say the overwhelming number of people that we serve are working,” Obloy said. “They are trying to make it.”

Along with providing assistance with heating costs, Obloy said the CAC offers help through the weatherization program, which is also federally funded that helps households save energy consumption.

A 2008 study from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for the state of Ohio showed that weatherization program shows that it reduces the cost of energy consumption by an average of $421 and reduced natural gas consumption by an average of 32 percent. It also showed that for every $1 spent, the benefit savings were $1.65. Obloy also said it reduces demand for imported oil by 18 million barrels annually.

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