Utility aid program halted

The statewide Neighbor Helping Neighbor program, an emergency assistance program for people in crisis who are unable to pay their utility bills, has shut down due to lack of funds.

The program, administered by Southern New Hampshire Services, assists individuals and families facing unexpected hardships including unemployment and medical bills.

“The demand was high last year, and we can only give what has been donated by utility customers,” said Louise Bergeron, energy director at Southern New Hampshire Services, the community action agency for Hillsborough County.

Six state utility companies – Granite State Electric, Public Service of New Hampshire, Unitil Exeter/Hampton, Unitil Concord, KeySpan, and Northern Utilities – share the administrative costs of running Neighbor Helping Neighbor. The six community action agencies statewide take applications that are processed by Southern New Hampshire Services.Bergeron said 1,671 New Hampshire residents applied for the emergency assistance with their gas and electric bills between October 1, 2003 and September 30, 2004. Of those applicants, 1,504 received help and the other 167 were denied. The program was abruptly stopped last month after the funds ran out.

The 18-year-old program was started to help residents facing unexpected hardships. It is not a fuel assistance program for low-income residents and is available only to those who meet specific criteria, Bergeron said.

Anyone who received fuel assistance during the previous year is ineligible, while those who qualify must have received a shutoff notice from the utility and be facing a hardship such as loss of employment, unexpected medical bills, or other circumstances considered out of the ordinary.

“It’s not low-income,” Bergeron said. “It’s for anyone for whom something has happened and they don’t have enough money to pay their bill.”

She said the name of the program, Neighbor Helping Neighbor, reflects a longstanding New Hampshire tradition and underscores the emergency nature of the program.

“It’s in the tradition of shoveling their walk, bringing over a casserole,” she said, comparing the program to the everyday gestures of neighbors helping each other through unexpected difficulties.

Those interested in donating to the program may use envelopes mailed with their monthly utility bills or check off a box on the bill adding $1 to be applied to the fund, Bergeron said. Contributions may also be made directly to the Neighbor Helping Neighbor Fund, P.O. Box 3804, Manchester, NH 03105.