MONTPELIER — The state will spend considerably less money this winter than it did last year to help lower-income residents heat their homes, but administration officials say that won’t mean less help for Vermonters.
Lower oil and propane prices and more aggressive negotiations with fuel dealers mean a cut of more than 13 percent in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program will leave it able to buy an equivalent volume of fuel, Gov. Peter Shumlin said Thursday.
LIHEAP has traditionally been funded entirely by the federal government, but shrinking allocations by Congress have seen the state using general funds in recent years to shore up the program.
Vermont’s federal funding looks poised this year to come in at about $17 million — the lowest per-capita funding level in the history of the program. Vermont will kick in $8.7 million in general fund money, for a total of $25.6 million.
Last year’s funding was nearly $30 million, including $9.7 million from Vermont.
“The bad news is that Congress in their wisdom continues to cut funding for low-income Vermonters who desperately need to stay warm,” Shumlin said. “I think there’s pretty much broad bipartisan consensus in Vermont that we live in a state where it is cold, and where everyone, regardless of income, should not have to make horrid choices between putting food in the refrigerator, buying their medicine or staying warm in their homes.”
The Legislature’s four-person Emergency Board approved the 2014 fiscal year LIHEAP spending plan Thursday.
The Legislature earlier this year included $6 million in base funding for the aid program, knowing in advance that Congress’ allocation likely wouldn’t meet the full need. The additional $2.1 million approved by lawmakers Thursday reflects concerns over the severity of the federal reductions.
LIHEAP is projected to serve 28,600 households this winter, an increase of about 850 over last year. The average fuel benefit of $797 is down by more than 10 percent from last year’s benefit.
But Richard Moffi, fuel assistance program chief, said the money will have improved purchasing power this winter, thanks to a projected dip in energy prices and the state’s ability to secure favorable rates from fuel dealers.
Last year, the program covered an average of 31 percent of a beneficiary’s seasonal heating costs; this winter, the average benefit is expected to cover 32 percent of heating costs.
Michael Sirotkin, lobbyist for the Community of Vermont Elders, a group that advocates for lower-income seniors, said the state appropriation reflects a commitment by lawmakers to protect the poor this winter.
“They promised they would look at this again depending on what the federal government did,” Sirotkin said. “And they delivered on that promise today, and we’re happy with that.”
The additional $2.1 million in general fund money comes from a reserve fund the Legislature created to guard against anticipated reductions in federal revenue.
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