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Heating help could become scarce this winter

POSTED: September 20, 2008 5:00 a.m.
TOM REED /The Times

Laran Rouse checks a gas heater in the showroom of Blossman Gas in Cleveland.

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Autumn hasn’t officially arrived yet, but some people already are wondering how they can afford to heat their homes this winter.

The cost of all forms of energy is expected to be higher, in part due to demand throughout the global economy. But no one can predict exactly how high prices will go. Last weekend’s Hurricane Ike disrupted refineries in Louisiana and Texas, and nobody knows the storm’s long-term effect on the cost of heating oil, propane and natural gas.

This much is certain, however: There will be more people who can’t pay their heating bills. Bankruptcies, foreclosures, high gas and food prices, and growing unemployment have left families with tough choices to make.

"I predict we’re going to have a pretty rough heating season this year," said Brenda Dalin, community services director for Ninth District Opportunity in Gainesville. "There are people who will go without other things, such as medicine, so they can pay for heat."

Ninth District Opportunity is the local nonprofit agency that distributes funds from the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, funneled through the Georgia Department of Human Resources.

Local agencies receive money in November to serve their area. If they’re lucky, they may get some contingency funding later on.

Dalin said such windfalls have become scarce.

"We got $800,000 last November, and no additional funding," she said. "The previous year, we got $1.2 million. This year, our initial allocation is $740,000."

Dalin said the prospect of getting more than that seems dim.

"When the federal government makes budget cuts, social programs are the first thing they look at," she said.

Michael Bracy, director of the Campaign for Energy Assistance, an advocacy group for the energy assistance program, said the legislation that created the program authorizes Congress to allocate up to $5.1 billion a year. But typically, only about half that amount is appropriated.

Citing high energy prices and difficult economic times, the group is urging Congress to include an additional $3.2 billion for the program in the fiscal 2008 supplemental budget.

"There is nowhere near enough money in the program to help all the households that are in need," Bracy said.

He said some members of Congress have tried to attach the funding to various supplemental budget bills, but no legislation has passed because of disagreements over controversial issues such as oil drilling.

"The (federal) fiscal year runs out at the end of September, and they’ll probably just pass a continuing resolution to keep the government running," Bracy said. "There’s a concern that if Congress doesn’t pass (the funding) before they go home to campaign, it won’t get done until January."

Ninth District will start taking heating and energy assistance applications from elderly and disabled residents starting Nov. 1. The rest of the public can’t apply until Dec. 1.

"We usually run out of money after signing up the elderly, and there’s not much left when we open it up to the general public in December," said Dalin.

She already knows she’s going to have to turn away people in need.

"We served 1,700 households (throughout Northeast Georgia) in 2007," she said. "We’ve already served 1,945 so far this year. That is usually an indicator of where we’re headed (in the winter season)."

Dalin said the people who have been served so far are those whose power has been disconnected or who have received a disconnection notice.

"It does not include people who want to fill up their (propane) gas tanks (for this winter)."

To qualify for the energy program, a family can’t have an income higher than 150 percent of the federal poverty level. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a family of four’s poverty level is an annual household income of $21,200.

The maximum amount of assistance a family can receive each year is $250.

"Years ago, the maximum amount you could get was $350," said Dalin. "Now it’s less, even though the price of energy has gone up."

The money can be used for any type of home energy, and how much you benefit from that $250 may depend on how you heat your home.

In some cases, customers who use electricity or natural gas may be less affected by price fluctuations if they are served by a state-regulated utility.

Konswello Monroe, spokeswoman for Georgia Power, said the electrical utility already got permission from the Georgia Public Service Commission to increase rates by 2.9 percent, effective June 1.

Monroe said the average customer’s bill would increase by only $2.93 a month. She also doesn’t expect customers to be affected by the rising price of natural gas. Most of Georgia Power’s electricity comes from coal-fired or nuclear plants, with only about 6 percent generated from natural gas.

Monroe added that many Georgia Power customers use sources other than electricity for their winter heating.

"We are a summer-peaking utility (because of air conditioning usage), and most of our disconnects occur during the summer," she said.

People who heat their homes with natural gas should expect to pay more this year, according to Chuck Eaton, chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission.

"Natural gas prices are at levels not seen since the fall of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina disrupted supplies," he said earlier this week.

According to a forecast from the federal Energy Information Administration, homeowners who use natural gas will pay an average of $1,059 this year to heat their homes, an increase of 23.8 percent.

The PSC is expected to vote today on whether to grant a rate increase to Atmos Energy, the main natural gas supplier in Gainesville. If passed, the change would add $4.71 to the average customer’s monthly bill.

Atmos requested the rate hike to help the company recoup its depreciation and maintenance costs. PSC spokesman Bill Edge said it is not directly related to the increased cost of energy.

"We don’t regulate the price of natural gas," he said.

For people who live in Northeast Georgia’s small towns and rural areas, natural gas is not an option because there are no pipelines. Most rural residents choose to heat their homes with propane.

But propane is a petroleum product, and its price can be volatile.

"Usually we pretty well follow the price of crude oil," said Connie Turner, who is retiring after 22 years as office manager of North Georgia Propane in Gainesville. "But because of the hurricane (Ike), we have no idea what the price will be. We’re at the mercy of the pipeline out of Texas, and we won’t know anything for at least two weeks."

Turner said the end of August is when people usually start asking for their propane tanks to be filled for the winter.

"We had been holding off, waiting to see if the price would drop," Turner said. "We’re offering customers if they fill now, they can pay half in 30 days and the other half in another 30 days."

North Georgia Propane’s minimum delivery of 150 gallons costs more than $400 right now, she said. The average home propane tank holds between 250 and 500 gallons, but Turner said many customers are trying to save money by not filling the tank all the way up.

The company also offers a budget plan, in which the customer pays a fixed monthly installment throughout the year. Blossman Gas, another propane company with several locations in the region, has a similar plan.

"That really helps out a lot of people," said Chuck Sanders, manager of the Blossman branch in Cleveland. "The average heating bill (for propane) is $1,200 to $1,500 a year. With the budget plan, people only pay about $100 a month, and we cap the price at $2.99 a gallon."

The locked-in price could be valuable; Sanders said he expects the cost of propane to continue rising.

And a $250 allocation from the energy assistance program isn’t going to go far, even when a family can qualify for it.

"Last year we had a lot of customers who had trouble getting assistance (with heating bills)," said Turner.

She said she’s seeing more customers using less propane and buying log or kerosene heaters for supplemental use. But she worries about house fires or carbon monoxide poisonings that occur when people use heat sources improperly in a desperate attempt to keep warm.

"I don’t know what’s going to happen," Turner said. "I feel sorry for a lot of these people."



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