Local agencies, groups lend a hand to help keep the heat on

HOUGHTON – Governor Rick Snyder announced Wednesday that he’s working with the legislature to free up $7 million in statewide funding for home heating and utility assistance, with $7 million already allocated for the winter largely spent due to soaring propane prices and frigid temperatures.

He’ll have the support at least of four Upper Peninsula legislators and one from Petoskey, who together issued a statement supporting the plan and citing a need for help in northern Michigan.

“Sub-freezing temperatures without heating fuel can be every bit as much of an emergency crisis as flooding or hurricanes in other parts of the country,” said Rep. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan.

Locally, some of the agencies that use state and sometimes charitable funds to help families with energy needs have already gone through most of their budgets, though others are still in a strong position to help.

The Baraga-Houghton-Keweenaw Community Action Agency has spent nearly all of the $184,000 allocated by the state for its deliverable fuel program, for example, and isn’t currently able to help people needing fuel oil, firewood, wood pellets or the bank-breaker, propane.

CAA Executive Director Jean LaBerge said the agency has actually served a third or fewer households this year, about 200, than in others, but that more money was needed for most cases.

“Because of the cost of propane we’ve allocated more to each household,” said LaBerge, who noted the agency still has funding to help residents with electric or natural gas bills that are overdue or in danger of being shut off.

The Salvation Army, on the other hand, is just beginning to distribute its annual state funding for deliverable fuel, after delays receiving software and training and the agency’s focus on its Christmas activities.

Major Mark Brown said the army plans to help hundreds of families, and that the program had doubled the amount that can be awarded per family from last year.

“The money’s probably enough to meet needs through the rest of the winter,” he said, even while noting that those needs might be considerable.

“There are some bad times with the severe weather,” he said.

For many families in need energy assistance, the first stop is their county Department of Human Services. According to Houghton County DHS Assistance Payment Supervisor Jim Tervo, DHS awards funds from several state programs, and will sometimes coordinate assistance with other agencies to fully meet families’ needs.

“We always do eligibility determinations,” he said. “Sometimes they say we can pay so much if someone else can pay so much, and sometimes we’ll do a referral letter.”

Most agencies require proof of income, assets on hand and need, and Tervo noted that other agencies often find DHS paperwork helpful in making eligibility determinations.

State energy assistance programs generally require family income to be at or less than 150 percent of the poverty line for the family to qualify for assistance. Tervo said this means a single-person household would have to have a monthly income less than $1,397, while a family of six would need to earn less than $3,872 monthly.

Brown noted that fuel tanks also need to be less than a quarter full for families to qualify for deliverable fuel help under state programs.

Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, in Hancock, offers a unique privately run firewood program for clients 60 years and older who don’t have family or other support to meet that need.

Little Brothers owns its own woodlot for cutting wood, a small dump truck for delivery, and relies on volunteer labor to cut and split the wood, as well as logs donated by local lumber mills.

“Our demand this year is going through the roof,” said Little Brothers Acting Executive Director Cathy Aten. “We still have logs, but they need to be cut and split. … Our supply of ready wood is dwindling.”

Little Brothers is seeking volunteers to help with that cutting and splitting, she noted.