By Wendy Royston, Dakotafire Media
Additional reporting by Elizabeth “Sam” Grosz
Anyone who has weathered a Dakota winter knows how important a warm house can be in the dead of January. The people who are likely most acutely aware of this fact are the families struggling to pay their heating bills.
“It gets cold here, and any time the program can help families stay warm, it’s a great benefit to individuals, so we encourage people that if they think they qualify…to go to their county and work with an eligibility worker and see if they qualify,” said Carol Cartledge, director of North Dakota’s economic assistance programs, including the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Those workers “will get you connected with the program, and families won’t be left in the cold.”
During the last heating season, which ran from Oct. 1, 2013, through May 31, 2014, North Dakota’s LIHEAP program helped keep more than 13,000 families warm. South Dakota’s Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP) assists about 24,000 families with home heating costs each year. In both states, most of those program recipients are elderly, disabled or very young.
Cartledge said public perception of the program is mostly positive.
“It’s nice to know that there is help available to those who need it,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just a short-term assistance, and if that’s what they need to help get them through the winter, we definitely encourage people to apply.”
One season of help can make a big difference
For Jessica (last name omitted to protect anonymity), a single mom in Brule County who found herself without employment last winter, South Dakota’s LIEAP was among the things that helped her and her children get back on their feet.
“I was living on my savings and three part-time jobs,” said Jessica. “At the time I applied for assistance, I was about three months into a search for full-time work … and the job search was taking longer than I expected. By mid-December I realized I needed to re-evaluate my money situation. It came to a head when I needed to fill fuel oil. I had a balance on my account, and they couldn’t give me a full fill.”
Jessica said her biggest challenge in applying for the program was her own reluctance to ask for help.
“I wanted to make it on my own. I was making enough to pay my regular bills each month, but the fuel oil bill is a big bill to pay in a short amount of time,” she said, adding that the fuel bill for her modest home can reach as high $1,400 in a winter. “Once I realized I would need some help, I needed help right away. … The headache came in trying to get assistance quickly and all the phone calls I had to make to keep things on track.”
Jessica gathered three months’ worth of financial records in order to keep her home and her children from feeling the chill of her employment situation, putting her pride on ice for a bit.
“The paperwork is a headache, and it’s not comfortable sharing your financial situation with others,” she said. “At one point, I did emotionally break down over trying to get help quickly. The company couldn’t give me a fill since I had a balance, and the state couldn’t process my application any more quickly. … I felt stuck and had another week or two left on my tank.”
Jessica admits she could have utilized other revenue sources to take care of the fuel oil bill, but she said using the LIHEAP for one season was in her family’s best interest.
“I could have paid my bill by credit card or (drawn) down my savings further, but I didn’t need any more debt and I needed my savings to fall back on for other bills if the job search drew out even further, which it did,” she said. “I was hustling to take care of my kids, bring in an income and find a new job as a single-parent household. … In rural communities, professional-level jobs take work and creativity to find. I didn’t have the luxury of time or money to be creative, and, fast food and hospitality (companies) weren’t hiring me full-time because I was over-qualified and not planning to be permanent. So, what I expected to take two months, took six.”
Eligibility varies by state
Eligibility for the energy assistance programs, which are funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce, is based upon family size, income and fuel type and energy usage.
North Dakota families whose incomes are below 60 percent of the median—or mid-level—income qualify for at least some energy assistance. In North Dakota, the combined annual income of a family of four cannot exceed $51,702 in order to be eligible for assistance. In South Dakota, qualification depends upon income received only in the three months prior to application. For a family of four, that income cannot exceed $10,434 over three months—which works out to $41,736 based on 12 months. The difference in numbers between the two states, according to Cartledge, has a lot to do with the recent rise in median income in North Dakota, due to the state’s oil boom.
Last heating season, North Dakota’s LIHEAP paid an average of $1,320 toward households’ heating bills directly to service suppliers/vendors.
The program is not limited to payment of monthly natural gas or electric bills, or fuel oil deliveries.
“It’s also helping keep your home more efficient,” including furnace cleaning, care and replacement; weather stripping, insulation and “anything that can help with the heating costs,” according to LuWanna Lawrence, public information officer for the North Dakota Department of Human Services. “In the end, that’s helping reduce heating cost, too.”
Weatherization and emergency funds also help keep homes warm
Weatherization assessments and services are provided through local community action groups, in conjunction with the states. Plus, an emergency fund helps pay for emergency repairs to heating systems, and/or to avoid disconnections due to inability to pay.
According to Deb Cahoy, executive director for the Rural Office of Community Services (ROCS), which is based in Lake Andes, S.D., and serves a 22-county area, the weatherization program’s priority is on helping the elderly, handicapped and families with small children, but a malfunctioning furnace trumps all other needs.
“South Dakota has tough winters,” she said. “If someone calls in with furnace problems … we do that sooner.”
Currently, 300 households are on the waiting list for weatherization projects through the ROCS office in southeastern South Dakota.
“The ROCS Weatherization Program is designed to help low-income households overcome the high cost of energy through conservation,” Cahoy said. The goal is giving the client a list of the most effective steps he or she could take to make the home more energy efficient, making the home more comfortable and reducing heating costs.
This process, Cahoy said, includes “a room-by-room examination of the home, inside and out, including doors, windows, attic and wall for insulation, appliances and lighting; a blower door test to measure air infiltration in the house, an appliance meter check to determine efficiency, furnace testing; a gas water heater test; health and safety checks such as gas ranges, dryer venting and exhaust fans; and client education.” Insulation, attics and sidewalls also are inspected during the audit.
Certified auditors conduct the energy audits, according to Cahoy, and any necessary work is done by local contractors.
The program also completes some home audits for families who do not qualify for the program financially, to allow them to determine what measures can be taken to increase their homes’ efficiency.
Funding for weatherization initially was made available through stimulus funding in the 1970s, Cahoy said, and the U.S. Department of Energy now provides most of the funds as a block grant to the state, which then distributes funds to the regional agencies. The State of South Dakota also funds some furnace repairs directly.
Renters may also be eligible for assistance. In some cases, landlords may have to pay one-third of the cost of repairs to their rental properties, depending upon their own income levels.
Those who need help should apply
Jessica, who now is employed full-time in her chosen career field and ineligible for LIHEAP, Jessica said the program was a game-changer for her family.
“Using assistance helped ease the financial sting of my situation. Yes, I was working and had some savings. I wasn’t completely destitute, but by South Dakota guidelines, I was, at the time, in poverty,” she said. “Heating assistance didn’t pay for my entire heating bill last winter, but it paid for enough to give me breathing room and not make a tough situation even worse. … In my normal situation, I plan and save for my winter heating fuel oil bill, but I didn’t plan to lose my job.”
Jessica recommends those who might need heating assistance apply for it sooner, rather than later.
“Someone in a tight financial situation should look at the program before it’s an emergency situation,” she said. “The income guidelines were higher than I expected, and the process took longer than I expected.”
Further information about the LIEAP program in South Dakota and the LIHEAP program in North Dakota can be obtained through the states’ respective departments of social services, or through individual heating supply companies. Information regarding the North Dakota LIHEAP can be obtained at http://www.nd.gov/dhs/services/financialhelp/energyassist.html. South Dakota’s LIEAP information is available at http://dss.sd.gov/energyassistance/. Both states’ energy assistance applications are available online.