Heating low income homes

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program in Ward County had received 444 applications for help with this winter’s heating bills as of the end of December. Application numbers have been trending down in the past couple of years, said Holly Keaveny, who oversees the program at Ward County Social Services.

“We used to have 1,200 to 1,300 applications,” she said. “After the flood, we had about half that much, and it hasn’t come back up.”

It’s unknown to what extent low-income residents left, are now earning more money or are living in different situations where the assistance isn’t needed. But the number of applications this year is similar to the lower numbers of the past couple of years.

Carol Cartledge, economic assistance policy division director with the North Dakota Department of Human Services, said the number of individuals qualifying for the program has been dropping statewide.

In the heating season that ended in May 2011, there were 15,840 participants. In the heating season that ended in May 2013, there were 13,029.

“We have seen those drops across all of our economic assistance programs,” Cartledge said. “That’s, in part, due to increases in income in North Dakota. Fewer people qualify. Their incomes are greater.”

Income guidelines for heating assistance through LIHEAP include a $25,773 limit for a one-person household; $33,703 for a two-person household; $41,633 for a three-person household; and $49,563 for a four-person household.

For the 2013-2015 biennium, the Economic Assistance Policy Division estimates serving about 6,578 households each month during the heating season and paying about 400 energy providers an average monthly benefit per case of $230. This compares to the previous biennium’s 6,910 cases per month receiving an average monthly benefit of $238.

Funding for LIHEAP and for weatherization has declined due to federal budget cuts. The state started the heating season with just 90 percent of previous funding.

However, Cartledge said the cuts last year weren’t a concern and they aren’t expected to hinder the state’s ability to meet the needs of applicants this season. The heating assistance program has had extra funds that it has been able to transfer to the weatherization and furnace replacement program, where the number of participants has remained stable, she said.

LIHEAP clients are offered the opportunity to receive weatherization services provided by Community Action Partnership and funded with federal dollars administered by the state Department of Commerce. Other residents who believe they may qualify and are interested in the services can contact Community Action Partnership. The agency takes applications throughout the year.

Community Action Partnership in Minot reports receiving about 25 to 30 applications so far this season within its seven-county region, which includes the Fort Berthold Reservation. Most of those applications have been in Ward and Bottineau counties.

Application numbers fell following the 2011 flood because many older homes in Minot that typically have been part of the program were damaged and undergoing repairs, said Rachel Haskins, energy conservation assistant with Community Action Partnership in Minot.

The weatherization program provides energy conservation services to low-income homeowners and renters to make their homes more energy efficient. Services may include insulation, caulking, weather-stripping and emergency furnace and water heater repair or replacement. Trained construction crews provide the services.

Income guidelines for the weatherization include $22,980 for a one-person household; $31,020 for a two-person household; $39,060 for a three-person household; and $47,100 for a four-person household.

The state also has a program through Community Action Partnership to assist low-income Ward County residents affected by the 2011 flood with furnace repair or replacement and insulation. As long as funds remain available, the flood-assistance program will continue to operate through the end of the biennium in 2015. Homeowners can apply through their local county social services office.

The federal government’s Energy Star website recommends homeowners change furnace filters regularly, tune up their heating and air conditioning equipment annually, install programmable thermostats and seal and insulate heating and cooling ducts that run to and from a forced air furnace, central air conditioner or heat pump.

According to information from Xcel Energy, heating and cooling typically account for at least 50 percent of a homeowner’s energy bill, which indicates the significance of efficiency measures such as weather stripping, insulation and thermostat setback.