Drop in donations put chill in heating aid programs

Published on Thu, Jan 10, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Drop in donations put chill in heating aid programs

By Meg Olson

Local programs aimed at keeping home fires burning are feeling the pinch this winter, which could mean some local families won’t have the help they need to keep warm through cold spells.

In Blaine the community utility assistance fund, administered by the city and the Peace Arch Ministerial Association, is down to a level less than half what it’s been at in previous years due to dwindling donations. “We usually have over $2,000 and we just don’t have that this year,” said city finance director Meredith Riley. The program’s balance, Riley said, is down to $840. “We haven’t really had any cold snaps this year and if we do get some cold weather we may not have the funds available to help someone who needs it,” she said.

The program helps approximately 40 families and individuals every year, picking up some or all of a utility bill when a crisis or a financial setback makes then unable to pay to keep the power on. Applicants can qualify for the assistance only once per year and need to meet certain criteria. City utility customers make donations to the program through the city’s utility billing department by adding a little extra when they pay their bills. In the past, the fund balance has been beefed up by one or several larger corporate donations, which are absent this year.

Another program helping to keep power on is also stretched this year. The Opportunity Council, a nonprofit agency serving Island, San Juan and Whatcom counties, had to put its Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) on hold for two weeks over the holidays after reaching their spending limit for 2001.

The federally funded program, which helps low-income families with heating expenses, hit the 35 percent spending limit on a federal grant that pays for the program and had to wait until after the first of the year to keep handing out grants. “We stopped booking appointments for two weeks but we opened the phones again yesterday,” said Opportunity cCouncil program manager Annette DeSalvo.

Since November 13, over 500 families have received energy grants through the Opportunity Council. Grants, paid directly to the applicant’s utility account, are given on a first-come, first-serve basis and the program will continue through the heating season or until all money is distributed. “We start seeing clients in November and we’re usually out of money by April,” DeSalvo said. Last year the program served 2,800 homes.

De Salvo said the program serves a variety of people, from working families “who just don’t make enough to handle higher bills in winter,” to seniors deciding between heat and medicine. “Unfortunately we don’t have the funding to serve everyone who could use it,” DeSalvo said. Appointments to apply for help are already booked well into February.

Donations to the Opportunity Council’s energy program go into a special fund to help people who don’t get covered by the federal program, DeSalvo said. “We put it into a crisis fund for families who call us up in distress and need help now,” she said.

To donate to the Blaine community utility assistance fund, or apply for assistance, call Blaine city hall at 332-8311. Call the Opportunity Council, 734-5121, extension 360, to make an appointment or inquire about making donations.

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