A program to help low-income families pay utilities bills is getting a slow start this year just as people crank up their furnaces for the cold weather.
For the first time in a decade, Snohomish County is starting a month later than normal, or in mid-December instead of mid-November. Other agencies throughout the state are facing similar delays.
The slowdown owes to a relatively small portion of the federal money for the program that is reaching Washington state.
“There was a sense of disappointment that it wasn’t enough for the agencies to open for business as usual,” said Bill Beuscher, supervisor for the county’s energy assistance and weatherization programs. “I do feel that we will have adequate funds to meet the most urgent needs in our community, but there will be a delay in getting the money out into the community this year.”
The money originates from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Each state requests how it wants that money to be paid out during the year.
Last year, the county ended up with more than $3.1 million from the program and was able to help 7,682 households, Beuscher said. The money went out in chunks of $25 to $1,000.
The amount given out depends on income, the number of people in the household, the heating bill and the type of housing. The average assistance last season was $412.
This year, the program is starting with almost $489,000 from now until the end of the year, Beuscher said. That’s more than 20 percent less than the $620,000 that the county had for November and December of last year.
The discrepancy is tied to federal money that is passed through Washington state before reaching the counties and nonprofit agencies.
Washington, for example, was set to get more than $71 million for the federal budget year that started Oct. 1, which it would them parcel out to local groups. The state could have received up to three-quarters of that total during the first quarter of the federal budget year, but instead, only asked for 7 percent or about $5 million. No other state requested less than 25 percent.
Washington was able to boost money for the program in the first quarter from sources such as leftover money from last year, said Diane Klontz, the state’s managing director for the program. The state should eventually get the full 100 percent later in the year.
“We are starting a little bit later this year,” said Diane Klontz, the state’s managing director for the program. “The funding from last year is very comparable to the current year.”
She said the state did not ask for more money up front because it needs the money more during the second quarter of the budget year, which starts in January.
Though the total amount of money headed to the state could go down slightly from last year, it’s still much higher than two years ago.
The county’s share almost doubled in 2008-09 from nearly $1.9 million in the winter of 2007-08, Beuscher said. He expects needs to grow this winter.
“From what we’ve seen, the demand is up, the need in the community is increased,” he said.
To be eligible for the program, a household cannot earn more than 150 percent of the federal poverty level or 60 percent of the state median income.
Anybody eligible for the program who makes a certain percentage of their bill payments cannot have power shut off between Nov. 15 and March 15.
Also, Snohomish County PUD does not shut off power to any customers if the morning temperature is below 32 degrees, PUD spokesman Neil Neroutsos said.
In addition the federal assistance program administered by the county, the PUD used $4.8 million last year to help 13,000 low-income families and seniors pay bills.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.