Millions in energy aid lined up

By SHARON SALYER and KATHY DAY

Herald Writers

Don’t let soaring energy bills send you into a panic. There’s help for those in need.

Nearly $2.5 million is available to assist low-income and senior residents of Snohomish County and Camano Island with their natural gas and electricity bills.

Following recently announced rate increases, the "call went out" for state and federal help, said Bill Beuscher, a supervisor in Snohomish County’s Energy Assistance Program.

"We’re sitting on the edge of our chair hoping we’ll get more," he added.

About half the $2.5 million comes through a county program expected to help some 4,000 households pay their heating bills, Beuscher said.

Most of the rest is included in a Snohomish County PUD program that is expected to provide rate-reduction assistance to about 7,000 seniors and low-income customers this year. Rate discounts of 15 percent, 30 percent and 45 percent are based on income.

On top of that, the American Red Cross’ Project PRIDE has a little more than $100,000 that comes primarily from donations by PUD customers.

Similar programs are available for natural gas customers of Puget Sound Energy in Island County. The utility’s electric customers on Whidbey Island can also tap into the Warm Neighbor Fund, administered by the Salvation Army, which is similar to Project PRIDE.

Individuals or families applying for county or PUD programs must meet federal low-income guidelines to qualify.

For example, in the Snohomish County program, monthly household income for a family of four generally cannot exceed $2,220. Seniors seeking assistance from the PUD must be at least 62 years old and have a combined disposable income of less than $18,000 a year.

The county’s Energy Assistance Program, which kicked off Nov. 15, is now considering several hundred requests for help.

Of the $1 million available, $134,000 has been allocated to 500 households so far, and several hundred applications for assistance are being reviewed.

The amount any individual or family may receive varies from $25 to $750, depending on need, Beuscher said.

"We already have broken last year’s record week," he added. "We’re dealing with people with overdue bills or a potential disconnection situation."

Assistance grants may be awarded for any type of heating cost: electric, gas or even wood pellets. Emergency furnace repairs can be funded as well.

Energy assistance grant recipients also may be eligible for the agency’s weatherization programs to help reduce future power bills. Participants have reported savings of as much as 30 percent after fixing heat-loss problems.

The 33 percent increase in residential electricity rates announced Wednesday and 25 percent increase in natural gas hikes requested on Monday will hit people especially hard who already are having trouble paying for food, housing and others basics, Beuscher said.

"Some of our toughest situations are families with very young children," he said. "They just don’t have the resources to stretch."

This was the case with one young couple in his office a week ago whose power had been turned off.

"They had been disconnected with four young children at home," he said. "We were able to get them reconnected, or they would have had a very serious situation."

For those above the income guidelines but still having trouble paying their power bills, few options are available.

"The law is very clear," Beuscher said of who can and cannot be helped through the program.

Although direct aid may not be available, the PUD does evaluate homes and offers energy-saving tips. The district also can switch a customer’s billing to a budget payment plan in which a customer’s bill is averaged throughout the year to balance out the lower summer costs with the higher winter bills.

The district also has a low-interest energy loan program that helps pay for energy-efficient improvements for customers with electrically heated homes. Loans can be issued for such projects as insulation and weatherstripping and installing insulated windows or heat pumps, a PUD spokesman said.

Customers have up to 10 years to pay back the loans, which are available for apartments and single-family and mobile homes.

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