Many need help with fuel this year

For Assistance

So far, winter has been more tease than tormentor. But the administrator of fuel and electric assistance programs for Southern New Hampshire Services expects colder weather and a growing demand for help.

“There are three factors that influence need: weather, the price of heating products and the economy,” said Louise Bergeron, energy director for the community action agency for Hillsborough County.

“Last year was an intense year. We had all three (and) applications were up 20 percent over the previous year. This year, gas will go up, oil is up a little, the economy is so-so and the weather has held out.”

So far this year, 4,000 households in Hillsborough County have received aid – which represents about 30 percent of beneficiaries statewide – while another 4,000 applications are being while another 4,000 applications are being processed or waiting to be reviewed during appointments. Statewide, 27,092 households received assistance last year, an increase of nearly 10 percent from 24,670 the year before.

The federal fuel assistance program runs from Dec. 1 through April 30 and is funded by congressional resolution. Last year, the state received $16.1 million, an amount that included contingency funds. The previous year, when the program ran out of money, the grant totaled $13.2 million without any contingency funds.

The federal allocation for the current season under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program has not yet been finalized. Until it is, the state is receiving funds based on last year’s appropriation, Bergeron said.

Bergeron, who is in her 10th year as administrator, said for thousands of households across the state, limited income and high fuel costs will force decisions about whether to buy food, medicine or heat. Sometimes, residents will stretch their resources so thin they end up cold, hungry and ill.

The program helps households buy heating oil, gas or wood, and in cases where heat is included in the rent, provides rental assistance.

Applicants qualify based on income guidelines and receive a one-time benefit for the season that runs between $120 and $975 depending on need.

“We like to let people know it’s there,” Bergeron said. “You don’t pay attention until you realize you’re not going to make it: It gets cold, the costs go up, your situation changes.”

Bergeron said participation in the program is usually temporary. Elderly residents on fixed incomes may need annual relief, but working families typically use it to get through a difficult time.

“A common misconception is it’s the same people every year,” she said. “It isn’t.”

Often those in need – particularly older, retired residents who have been self-sufficient all their lives – don’t want to ask for help.

“We say, ‘Your tax dollars are coming back to you,’ ” Bergeron said. “ ‘You paid taxes for years and a little is coming back to help you at a time when you need it.’ ”

She said fuel assistance is paid directly to the vendor as services are delivered.

In addition to fuel assistance, electric assistance is available to low-income residents and others who are caught short due to illness, unemployment or other circumstances.

Electric assistance is a state program funded by the systems benefit charge paid by all users. Those who qualify receive discounts of between 15 percent and 90 percent on their electric bills.

Bergeron said this state program aims to provide equity to low-income residents who often pay a disproportionate amount of their income for utility costs.

“The average is 4 percent for utilities, 6 percent if heat is included in the rent,” she said. “Low-income (families or individuals) pay up to 15 percent, 20 percent of their income for utility costs. The program brings them to where the average person is paying.”

Like the federal fuel assistance program, the state electric assistance program requires participants to meet income guidelines. Last year, Bergeron said, more than 23,000 households statewide received a discount on their electric bills.

“People are proud and want to do it on their own,” Bergeron said, adding that the program, funded by all electric users, is not a giveaway but was intended to “normalize what others are paying.”

For residents who don’t qualify for either program, Bergeron said, the Neighbor Helping Neighbor Fund is an option. That program, funded by customer donations to six utilities including Public Service of New Hampshire, KeySpan and Granite State Electric, was designed to help those who don’t qualify for fuel assistance but are experiencing a hardship and have received a disconnect notice.

The utilities pay the administrative costs. All donations go the fund, Bergeron said.

“The New Hampshire tradition is neighbor helping neighbor,” she said. “Instead of a casserole, they help with utilities. It’s not for low income per se, but anyone – someone unemployed, with a sick child, a broken car, any hardship out of the ordinary where they couldn’t pay their utility bills.”

Hattie Bernstein can be reached at 594-6439 or