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Some go without air conditioning as states slash programs

Payment help for electric bills begins to run out

By Tom Coyne
Associated Press / July 22, 2011

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Many states hit hardest by this week’s searing heat wave have drastically cut or entirely eliminated programs that help poor people pay their electric bills, forcing thousands to go without air conditioning when they need it most.

Oklahoma ran out of money in just three days. Illinois cut its program to focus on offering heating money for the winter ahead. And Indiana is not taking any new applicants. When weighed against education and other budget needs, cooling assistance has been among the first items cut, and advocates for the poor say that could make this heat wave even more dangerous.

“I’ve never seen it this bad,’’ said Timothy Bruer, executive of Energy Services Inc., which administers the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program in 14 Wisconsin counties. The group has turned away about 80 percent of applicants seeking cooling assistance.

The sizzling summer heat comes after a bitterly cold, snowy winter in many places and at a time when unemployment remains stubbornly high.

The cuts began after Congress eliminated millions of dollars in potential aid, forcing state lawmakers to scale back energy assistance programs. The agencies that distribute the money are worried that the situation could get even worse next year because the White House is considering cutting the program in half.

Joyce Agee, a retired secretary from South Beloit, Ill., said she typically receives about $300 in utility assistance each summer and up to $600 for the winter to supplement her Social Security income. After running her air conditioner constantly, she is worried about her next electric bill.

“I’ve cut back on what I eat so that I can pay my light bills and everything else,’’ she said.

The government provided $4.7 billion for low-income energy assistance for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, down $400 million from the year before. The money is primarily used by states to help with heating bills in winter, which lasts longer and generates higher utility bills.

But dozens of states, particularly those in the South and Midwest, have traditionally used a portion of the money to provide help during the summer - especially for elderly people and those with medical conditions that could be fatal in high heat.

“Energy assistance helps vulnerable people. If they can’t turn their air conditioner on because they’re afraid to pay the bill, there’s documented cases of people dying over time. It’s totally preventable,’’ said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, which is made up of state officials who give out the federal money.

The hot air mass that has plagued the Plains for days began spreading eastward yesterday, roasting residents of the Ohio Valley and the East Coast under a sizzling sun that made people sick, closed schools, and prompted cities to offer cooling centers and free swimming.

Forecasters issued excessive heat warnings for a huge section of the country, from Kansas to Massachusetts.

The temperature surpassed 100 degrees in Toledo, Ohio - just a few degrees shy of a record set in 1930. Combined with 69 percent humidity, it felt as hot as 107.

The weather is suspected of contributing to a number of deaths across the nation. Emergency room visits were way up, according to public health officials, mainly because of people suffering from heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Since the recession began, requests for heating and cooling assistance have skyrocketed, with 8.9 million households nationwide receiving federal help this year. That is up from 5.8 million in 2008-09.

Some states scaled back or canceled cooling assistance programs because they feared the government money would be cut further or would not arrive in time to help with winter heating bills.

The program was never meant to be the sole source of aid, but, Wolfe said, states are now “broke’’ and have few other options. Donations to social service groups that offer help have also dropped.

In Indiana, only those applicants who sought winter assistance were permitted to apply for help this summer. Federal funding arrived so late that state officials gave $100 to people who received winter utility money. That was double the normal amount, but it left nothing for new applicants in many places.

Illinois canceled its entire summer utility program because the money was already spent. About 70,000 households received aid in 2010, compared with 421,000 for the winter program.

Oklahoma officials doled out the entire $22 million for the summer program in just three days earlier this month.

“There’s always more need than we have money,’’ said Jeff DeGraff, a Louisiana Housing Finance Agency spokesman.

Michigan saw the biggest drop in its federal funding, which tumbled from $238 million to $38 million. Texas’s funding fell by $28.6 million.

The situation could get worse next year. President Obama has proposed cutting funding for the program to $2.5 billion.

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