Program helping families keep the heat on

By Joshua Keeran -

With January – historically the coldest month of the year in Ohio – fast approaching, low-income households in need of assistance with their heating bills can seek financial help through the Winter Crisis Program, also known as the Emergency Home Energy Assistance Program or E-HEAP.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and administered at the state level by the Ohio Development Services Agency (ODSA), the Winter Crisis Program helps Ohioans at or below 175 percent of the poverty level ($42,437.50 per year for a family of four) with their utility service if they’ve been threatened with disconnection, have been disconnected or have less than 25 percent supply of bulk fuel in their tank.

As of Dec. 22, the number of households in Ohio that had applied for assistance through the program for 2015-2016 was down from this time last year.

“So far to date, we have served about 51,000 households statewide,” said Penny Martin, public information officer for the ODSA. “Last year at this time, we were about at 60,000 households served statewide, so we are down a little bit. We think one of the reasons we are down is because right now our winter has been a little milder. Usually, when we have a colder winter, we see a little pickup in the program.”

Locally, 1,767 households in Champaign County were helped through the program over the past three years, while 2,260 households in Logan County received assistance over the same time period.

As for the yearly breakdown, the number of households that took part in the program in 2012-2013 were 595 in Champaign County and 770 in Logan County, while those numbers jumped during 2013-2014 to 639 in Champaign County and 788 in Logan County. Last year, the numbers dropped to 533 households in Champaign County and 702 in Logan County.

“The number of households served from ‘13-‘14 were higher because from Nov. 1, 2013, into early 2014, we actually extended the program by two weeks that year due to the winter (being) worse that year, so that’s why you see the numbers then went down the next year,” Martin said. “The type of winter we have impacts how many people participate in the program.”

How to apply

Individuals interested in applying for utility service assistance through the Winter Crisis Program can contact their local Community Action Agency to fill out an application and schedule an appointment.

The Community Action Organization of Delaware, Madison & Union Counties Inc. serves Champaign and Logan counties through branch locations. The Champaign County office, located at 40 Monument Square in Urbana, can be reached by calling 937-772-9164, while the Logan County office, located at 1653 N. U.S. Route 68 in Bellefontaine, can be reached at 937-404-9203.

Documents required for assistance include:

•All Social Security numbers for every household member

•All pages of the current electric and gas bill or information on your bulk fuel

•Birth dates of every household member

•Proof of all income received within the last 13 weeks for all household members

•If renting, lease agreement or rent receipt with landlord’s name, address and phone number

•Job and Family Services case number

•If disabled, proof of disability

Martin said the 2015-2016 Winter Crisis Program began on Nov. 2 and will run through March 31, 2016, and applicants can only apply once during that time frame.

“If anyone needs additional assistance after March (with their energy bills), they can come back and apply for the regular HEAP program, which is something open to folks year-round who are at or below 175 percent of the federal poverty level,” she said.

Additional help with heating bills

For households that don’t meet the income requirements for assistance through the Winter Crisis Program, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) offers another option through its Winter Reconnect Order, which gives residential customers the opportunity to have their service restored or maintained by paying the amount due or $175, whichever is less.

If service has been discounted, the customer must pay the $175 and any applicable re-connection charge not to exceed an upfront payment of $36. If the company’s re-connection charge is greater than $36, the balance may be billed to the customer the following month.

Like the Winter Crisis Program, the Winter Reconnect Order program can be used once during the winter heating season, which for PUCO began Oct. 19 and runs through April 15, 2016.

There is no income eligibility requirement or sign-up required for the Winter Reconnect Order.

For more information about enrollment in the Winter Reconnect Order, payment plans or budget billing, individuals are asked to contact their electric or natural gas utility.

By Joshua Keeran

Joshua Keeran may be reached at 937-652-1331 (ext. 1774) or on Twitter @UDCKeeran.

Joshua Keeran may be reached at 937-652-1331 (ext. 1774) or on Twitter @UDCKeeran.