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Cold weather, economic woes hit residents with double-barrel winter blast

POSTED: February 4, 2008 5:02 a.m.
TOM REED /The Times

Gary Gilliland puts up a hose after filling his North Georgia Propane truck Wednesday. Several blasts of cold weather during the past few weeks have forced residents to use more propane and other methods of to keep warm.

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When temperatures across Northeast Georgia dropped into the teens shortly after New Year’s Day and again last weekend, residents had little choice but to run their furnaces almost nonstop.

The frigid weather couldn’t have come at a worse time. The housing market is on the skids, and inflation and unemployment are on the rise. When those high heating bills come due in early February, many people aren’t going to be able to pay.

Not only have they been running the heat more than usual, but the cost of energy itself has increased.

"These are the highest prices I’ve seen in the 22 years I’ve been with this company," said Connie Turner, spokeswoman for North Georgia Propane in Gainesville. "When the price of crude oil goes up, our costs go up."

There are several programs in Georgia aimed at helping people pay their utility bills. But the criteria for eligibility are strict, and even for those who qualify, there’s not nearly enough money to go around.

"We had 1,679 people on a waiting list," said Brenda Dalin, director of community services at Ninth District Opportunity, an agency that serves Hall and 17 other counties in Northeast Georgia.

"As of Tuesday, we were able to get that number down to 766 households. But I expect hundreds more people will be applying to the waiting list because of the recent cold weather."

The state of Georgia provides no direct money for heating assistance. The Georgia Department of Human Resources receives federal money allocated by Congress, and funnels it through community agencies such as Ninth District.

Lynn Sims, energy assistance director for DHR, said Georgia originally got about $21 million this year for all of its energy programs, including funds for heating, cooling and weatherizing homes.

"About 12 percent goes to weatherization," she said. "The rest is distributed to counties based on their poverty level."

The federal funds assist more than 80,000 Georgia households each year.

"But we’re able to help only about 14 percent of the people who are potentially eligible," Sims said.

And this year, that percentage may be even smaller. The maximum amount any household can receive is $250, and they can only get one payment per year.

"$250 does not go as far as it used to," Sims said. "But if we raise the benefit, we’re going to have to serve less people. It all depends on how you want to slice it."

Dalin said this year Ninth District received, and has already spent, $1.2 million to help about 4,500 households in 18 counties. Last Friday, DHR got an additional $1.6 million in federal funds for energy assistance, some of which will be doled out to Ninth District.

But it won’t be enough. "Just to serve the people who are on our waiting list right now, we would need about $191,000," Dalin said.

In addition to the regular assistance program, which accepts applications as early as November from elderly residents and December from everyone else, there is also an emergency contingency fund.

"That money is for people who have received a cut-off notice from their utility company or who have less than 10 percent left in their (propane) tank," said Dalin. "We’ve served 419 households so far this year."

But she has to turn down many requests for help because people aren’t eligible. To receive money from the program, applicants must be legal residents. They also can’t earn more than 150 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $15,315 for a single person and $30,975 for a four-member household.

"A lot of the working poor make just a little bit over the limit," said Dalin. "We try to refer them to other programs affiliated with churches or other nonprofit agencies."

Through DHR, Ninth District also distributes funds from the Tucker-based Heating Energy Assistance Team (HEAT), which receives no federal support and relies on donations from utilities, corporations and municipalities.

Janet Joseph, executive director of HEAT, said this year the program has $705,000 available to help low-income Georgians, compared to $755,000 last winter.

"We could really use more donations," she said. "The need is so great."

Joseph said the different between HEAT and the federal program is that people can’t apply to HEAT in advance.

"Our funds are only for energy assistance emergencies," she said. "You have to have either already received a disconnection notice or your power has been turned off and you need it restored."

Once the person qualifies for the HEAT program, their power is turned back on within 48 hours, or within 18 hours if there is a medically fragile person in the household.

"The check is cut to the energy provider on the client’s behalf," Joseph said.

HEAT funds are available regardless of what type of energy the customer uses: natural gas, propane, electricity, coal, heating oil, even wood.

At North Georgia Propane, Turner said the company responds quickly to emergencies.

"We don’t wait for the check to arrive from the state," she said. "We know the money is coming, so we get the gas out to the customer right away."

But in order to qualify for HEAT, people must meet the same criteria as for the federal program: legal residency, and a household income no higher than 150 percent of the federal poverty level.

The only statewide program that does not have a standard income limit is Project SHARE, funded by Georgia Power. Electricity customers voluntarily add a few dollars to their utility payment, and Georgia Power provides a one-to-one match for each dollar. The money is then distributed through Salvation Army community centers throughout Georgia.

Last year, Project SHARE gave $2.3 million to about 50,000 people. But not all the funding went to energy assistance; the money can be used for any basic need, such as food or clothing. Donations to families are made on a case-by-case basis, at the Salvation Army’s discretion.

But despite the various programs that exist, many people still won’t be able to find help with their heating bills this winter.

"It’s estimated that more than 400,000 households in Georgia are potentially eligible for assistance," Joseph said.

Turner said she hates having to cut off service to customers, but energy companies have to be able to stay in business. Yet she can see how much people are struggling this year.

"The average home propane tank holds 250 gallons, and most people burn at least 500 gallons a year," she said. "Our minimum delivery is 150 gallons. That costs over $400, and it’s really difficult for people who are living paycheck to paycheck."

Turner said she’s seen customers resort to dangerous practices, such as operating kerosene heaters indoors, after their propane runs out.

Dalin, too, said she has clients who were in desperate circumstances as they tried every measure they could to ward off the bitter cold.

"There was one woman who sat so close to a wood heater that she got second-degree burns," Dalin said. "We had another lady who called 911 because her heat ran out and she didn’t know what to do. She was 86 and had no family. So the sheriff’s office called us."

Dalin said 71 percent of Ninth District clients are elderly and on Social Security, and 34 percent are disabled. For this population, heat isn’t just an amenity; it can be a matter of life or death.

"People in wheelchairs are especially prone to hypothermia because they can’t move around to stimulate (blood) circulation and get warm," she said.

Yet some residents are reluctant to turn the heat on, even if it’s available, because heating their homes uses up money that they may need for other things.

"The price of everything is way up. Food prices are up tremendously," Dalin said. "Our poor population is growing, but we see less funding to supplement some of these expenses that they may incur."


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