Bill would help with heating costs costs

Published January 9, 2006

LANSING (AP) - Jean Casler used the cash she received for Christmas to help cover her heating bill last month, but she doesn't know how she's going to make her January payment.

"I don't see any way that I am going to get that money," said Casler, a 70-year-old Lansing-area resident who has multiple sclerosis and only a $620 monthly disability check to pay her bills.

Casler is among many low-income people in Michigan who already are tapping into programs that help pay for heat, but need more this winter because of significantly higher fuel rates.

Their plight has prompted a number of state lawmakers to draw up legislation that would cover more low-income residents and give them more aid, prevent utility shutoffs during the winter months and offer tax credits to people who buy energy efficient appliances.

House Republicans want to lift the income requirement to receive the Home Heating Credit from 110 percent of poverty - $17,699 for a family of three - to 130 percent, or $20,917.

Democrats, meanwhile, want to ban utilities from shutting off heat service in the winter because of overdue bills, give the Michigan Public Service Commission the ability to use $5 million of research money to help people pay heating bills and set up a database to coordinate volunteers available to make homes more energy efficient.

Protections already are in place to prevent shutoffs for some utility customers. Casler, for example, is enrolled in the Winter Protection Program, which allows her to pay a small portion of her heating bill and avoid shutoffs from November to March. She said her monthly bill from Jackson-based Consumers Energy is $86, which she said it still too much.

Although lawmakers are looking at more measures to make heating bills affordable, they may not be able to pass them in time to help people such as Casler this heating season. Yet many groups that help people pay their energy bills said improvements are needed now.

Kathleen Walgren, executive director of The Heat and Warmth Fund, a nonprofit group that provides emergency assistance to people facing shutoffs, said she doesn't think the organization will have enough money this winter to get help to everyone who needs it.

The nonprofit organization has received about $4.5 million from the Michigan Public Service Commission to help low-income people cover their high energy bills and is raising extra money, Walgren said. Last year, it had $6.5 million altogether, she said.

While the group's funding is likely to be close to last year's levels, heating bills are up by nearly 50 percent, Walgren said. Its resources also may be drained faster than previous years because more people need help covering bigger bills, she said.

"We're going to get a lot of angry customers, people who don't like to be in the situation of having to ask for help," she said. "People are confused. They don't know how to apply and they've never had to do this before. They're sort of insulted they have to look for help."

Low-income individuals and families are not the only ones trying to deal with high energy rates this winter. Many middle-income families are making more room in their budgets for the higher costs while trying to find ways to use less energy.