Extended shutdown could chill state heating assistance efforts

Washington — Additional funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps to keep more than 100,000 Connecticut households warm in the winter, is on hold because of the federal government shutdown.

While state officials say there is enough money on hand to help low-income households through the beginning of the heating season in mid-November, they warn that such assistance from the program — known as LIHEAP — could be at risk in the event of a lengthy federal shutdown.

According to a document released Wednesday by the state Department of Social Services, $7.45 million in LIHEAP funding from the 2013 fiscal year, which ended Monday, is being carried into the 2014 fiscal year.

Once this funding is forwarded to local community action agencies, "they should have enough funding on hand to pay for the first wave of fuel deliveries, which start on November 15th, but nothing more," the report says.

"The greatest nation in the history of the world cannot leave seniors and low-income families out in the cold," declared Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who last week signed a letter asking that LIHEAP funding nationwide be maintained at a level of $3.47 billion for the coming fiscal year.

In southeastern Connecticut, LIHEAP applications are being submitted for the coming winter.

Thames Valley Council for Community Action, the federal antipoverty agency for the region, has accepted 2,600 applications from the 21 towns in New London County. As of Sept. 20, community action agencies across Connecticut had received 17,199 applications, with 11,539 of those already approved.

Community agencies began accepting applications Aug. 1.

"Due to early start up money, TVCCA was able to start taking applications in August this year," Christopher Sardo, the group's program director, said. "Depending on income, people are eligible for anywhere between $300 to $585 initially."

TVCCA anticipates 10,000 applicants this year, having served just under that number last year.

Agencies will continue to collect applications despite the shutdown. But as Nov. 15 — the first day that fuel deliveries can be authorized or paid for through the program — nears, they may face challenges in making payments to heating vendors if the shutdown continues, the social services department report warns.

Nationwide, funding for LIHEAP, which began in 1981, has been in decline in recent years. In fiscal year 2011, there was $4.7 billion in total funding, with $102.9 million allocated to Connecticut for assistance to 117,920 households. In 2012, total funding decreased to $3.47 billion. Connecticut received $79.5 million, which helped 100,416 households.

In fiscal year 2013, Connecticut received $76 million of the nationwide funding, but was still able to serve roughly the same number of households — 100,709.

According to recent testimony from Raymond Singleton, deputy commissioner of social services, the state is expecting $84.4 million in LIHEAP funding in the coming season, providing for help to almost 108,000 households this winter.

This estimate includes holdover funds, and is based on a nationwide LIHEAP funding level of $3.47 billion once the federal shutdown ends. That figure is contained in the legislation that ping-ponged between the House and Senate prior to Tuesday's shutdown.

But, without the passage of legislation to fund federal departments and agencies in fiscal year 2014, state and local agencies in Connecticut cannot be certain how much LIHEAP funding will be available beyond the $7.45 million carried over from last year.

"At this point everything will continue as planned," said David Dearborn, communications director at the state social services department. "We are all hopeful that the situation in Washington will be resolved very soon."

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