Anticipating that the level of federal funding for home heating fuel assistance could go down by 60 percent this winter, the governor is proposing a compromise that is proving unpopular with public utilities and community advocates alike.
The administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy reasons that the available assistance should go to people who heat with deliverable fuels, such as oil, because those who heat with gas or electricity already have a safety net - the law that prevents utilities from shutting them off for inability to pay.
A public hearing on the plan is scheduled for 3 p.m. today in the state Legislative Office Building.
Congress still has not decided how to handle President Barack Obama's proposal to cut the $5.1 billion federal program nearly in half, but Malloy estimates that Connecticut will receive only about $46 million this year in federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funds, said Gian-Carl Casa, undersecretary of legislative affairs for the state Office of Policy and Management.
Last year, LIHEAP provided $115 million to 117,876 customers, Casa said.
By law, electric and gas customers' service cannot be shut off due to an inability to pay, said Casa, so awarding LIHEAP funds to oil users - who do not have such assurances from their suppliers - will enable those customers to stay warm through the winter.
Normally, federal LIHEAP awards are made based on income eligibility regardless of the fuel source, be it oil, propane, electricity or natural gas.
"This is not an equitable plan because you're discriminating on people based on their source of heat," said Patricia Wrice, executive director of Operation Fuel, which provides low-income households with a mix of state and donor funding.
Wrice insists low-income customers' debts will accumulate and lead to shutoffs in the spring. In a letter, the state's Low Income Energy Advisory Board has asked the governor to distribute smaller amounts than the typical $800 award and to base the amounts on income, regardless of the type of fuel people use.
During the board meeting that prompted the letter, representatives for OPM and the state Department of Social Services disagreed, said Wrice, who is a member of the board.
"We understand the concern," Casa said, "but the priority has to be keeping people from freezing, and our plan does that. Unfortunately, the federal government appears to be walking away from its commitment here and we don't have the resources to spend more on it ourselves. If we were to do what the advocates ask for, the program would run out of money later this year."
The state's two major utilities, Connecticut Light & Power and The United Illuminating Co., say they are concerned about OPM Secretary Benjamin Barnes' statement, made last week, that financially strapped utility customers could still rely on their companies' matching payment plans.
Last year, 17,260 CL&P customers received more than $12.5 million in energy assistance awards, but the majority of those were matching funds issued to recipients of LIHEAP aid, said CL&P spokesman Mitch Gross.
"The LIHEAP funding is crucial for the matching payment program," Gross said. "You can't just cut it off. It would be extremely difficult to maintain the current level of matching without LIHEAP funds."
In the past three weeks, the New London-based social service agency TVCCA has received more than 1,200 applications for energy assistance, said Chris Sardo, TVCCA's director of energy.
If the governor's plan is approved, "who's going to be helping people facing shutoffs in the spring?" Sardo asked. "There's going to be an awful lot of people without hot water and electricity this summer. (The state is) going to have to put some money toward these clients."
But, Casa said, "We have the opportunity, if we can do triage, to take care of the most vulnerable first. We have an opportunity to come back in the spring and see what the needs are and do something then."
UI spokesman Michael West said putting low-income customers on a budget plan may help them meet their obligations.
"Budget billing is an option that doesn't pay down your actual bill, but it does help you better plan for whatever your economic situation has put you in," West said. "And we'll be doing other things in partnership with the state. We're trying to do whatever we can to make sure customers have solutions."
Parts of an Associated Press report were uased in this story.