LIHEAP continues to assist residents as heating bill cutoff moratorium ends

Report shows 243,403 accounts behind on utility bill payments

Published: March 31 2014 | 4:00 pm - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 10:23 am in

DES MOINES – The frigid temperatures from the past winter have lifted but are still effecting some low-income families and energy assistance agencies as April arrives.

The utility shutoff moratorium protecting households who’ve received help from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program ends April 1. Iowa residents with overdue natural gas and electric bills could see their utilities cut off starting Wednesday.

The Iowa Utility Board’s latest report shows 243,403 accounts of the 1.85 million electric or natural gas accounts in Iowa were behind on their utility bills at the end of February and owe more than $46 million in overdue bills. The dollar amount associated with the debt has hit a record high.  The report shows more than $11 million in unpaid bills come from households who received LIHEAP but still came up short.

February 2013 saw 233,814 households with unpaid bills who collectively owed nearly $33 million.

Iowa Utility Board spokesman, Rob Hillesland, said the board has urged residents who can’t pay their utility bills to contact their local utility service to work out a pay agreement to avoid service disconnection. He said those in need can also contact their local Community Action Agencies for one-time emergency aid.

Jerry McKim, state director of LIHEAP, said he doesn’t know how many LIHEAP recipients could have their utilities shut off beginning April 2. The moratorium period runs November 1 through April 1.

Bill Brand, state Bureau of Energy Assistance administrator, said the cold winter, higher fuel prices and higher heating costs “have placed a very high demand on LIHEAP resources.” He does think they’ll be able to provide assistance until the end of April with the $53.7 million in federal funds allocated for fiscal 2014.

However, Brand said LIHEAP has had to stretch dollars in some areas.

“It’s the emergency funds that are really stretched, we’re concerned about being able to meet the demand of people who are looking to avoid disconnection,” he said.

Brand said they’ve already tapped into funds normally used to purchase propane in the summer for the next winter season to assist households this year.

Brand said last year the program had $5.5 million in funds to pre-purchase propane in the summer for the next cold season. He anticipates this year that pool of funds will be around $4.3 million.

By the end of February roughly 76,000 households had applied and received heating assistance, McKim said. The program will take applications until April 30. McKim estimates around 86,000 people will utilize LIHEAP assistance by the end of the application period. Last year 85,000 households received LIHEAP assistance.

The Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate passed a bill in February allocating $2 million in state funds to LIHEAP, worried the propane shortage coupled with subzero temperatures would put a strain on the heating assistance program. The House never took up the bill.

Brand said the program should be able to assist applicants with the federal funds they’ve received and hasn’t asked state lawmakers for more funds.

“We will make best with the funds we have available. If the Legislature and governor decide to provide additional funding we’ll put that to use as well,” Brand said.

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