By Mike Boyer
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Higher natural gas prices this winter could squeeze the federal funds that help low-income residents with heating bills.
Congress hasn't approved the federal appropriation for the Home Energy Assistance Program, or HEAP.
The Senate has approved a $2 billion appropriation for the program, about the same as last winter. But the House has approved less, about $1.7 billion. The difference will have to be resolved in a House-Senate conference committee The government's new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
"All we know is that it won't be more (than last year), but hopefully it won't be less,'' said Vicky Mroczek, director of community services for the Ohio Department of Development. A similar project exists in Kentucky.
The House appropriation would mean about $86 million for the Ohio HEAP and the Senate version would mean about $101 million, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association. The difference for Kentucky is $4.1 million and $7.9 million in Indiana.
Last year, 70 percent of the quarter-million Ohioans receiving HEAP money used it to pay for natural gas, Mroczek said.
With forecasts for higher natural gas prices this winter, the same level of funding could limit the program, she said.
Mroczek's office is mailing applications for this year's program to last year's recipients. Applications are also going to local community action agencies, libraries and utilities. Information is also available at 1-800-282-0880.
Applicants whose household income is 150 percent or less of the federal poverty guidelines are eligible for one-time HEAP assistance. In addition, an emergency program is available, starting Nov. 1, to households whose service has been disconnected, threatened with disconnection or who have less than a 10-day supply of bulk fuel.
Applications for emergency HEAP funding are made through county community action agencies in Ohio and Kentucky.
Applicants served by a Public Utilities Commission of Ohio-regulated utility must also sign up with the utility for the Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP).
PIPP is an extended payment plan authorized by state law. If you heat with gas, for example, you pay no more than 10 percent of your monthly household income to the gas company.
About 14,000 Cincinnati Gas & Electric Co. customers were in the PIPP in 2002.
Earlier this month, PUCO approved its annual reconnection order to maintain heating service to customers disconnected or threatened with disconnection for nonpayment of a utility bill.
Customers in that situation can have their service restored or maintained once during the winter, if they pay the amount in default or $175, whichever is less, plus a service reconnection fee of no more than $20.
Natural gas and electric utility companies must reconnect service on the same day if payment is made before 12:30 p.m. or the following day if payment is made after 12:30 p.m.
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