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June 2, 2009

 

Heating assistance payments increase

Over $3.5 million given to low-income county households this winter through state program

By CATHERINE WILDE
Staff Reporter
cwilde@cortlandstandard.net

Demand for heating assistance through a state program increased this winter by 10 percent as Cortland County received about $1.1 million more in heating aid than it did last year.
Low-income households received approximately $3.6 million through the state Home Energy Assistance Program, commonly referred to as HEAP.
The number of benefits given to Cortland County households in the 2008-09 season increased by 10.8 percent over last year, with 6,027 benefits issued to households in the county.
The benefits are state subsidized heating payments.
Some households received up to three separate payments, with 4,235 households in the county receiving help for the 2008-09 season.
The previous year, 3,317 households received benefits.
The increase is due in part to a measure the state office took to make sure more people received HEAP benefits during the recession.
The program, administered by the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, provides heating bill payments of up to $900 for any household that is income eligible. That income eligibility threshold for 2008-09 was $45,312 for a family of four, up from last year’s level of $43,308.
On top of that, in the 2008-09 season, the program offered two emergency assistance payments of $800 each whereas previously the program used to only offer one such emergency payment. Any household meeting an income threshold of $56,635 and at risk of having the utilities shut off, could receive these payments.
Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance spokesman Anthony Farmer said the state offered a second emergency assistance payment and raised the income threshold from $43,308 because a one-time federal authorization allowed it to do so.
“We got a one-time authorization to make more people available so we raised it for the emergency component for people truly in an emergency situation to make more people eligible for it,” Farmer said.
Farmer explained the benefit is for people in a heating crisis situation.
“To prevent the utilities from being shut off or fill the oil tank back up, they could receive one of each of those (payments),” Farmer said.
Farmer explains the HEAP funds a vendor directly, ensuring the households that qualify for assistance receive their delivery of oil.
According to the state office, the number of HEAP benefits issued during the 2008-09 season was almost 1.5 million statewide, one-third greater than the previous year.
This means that New York families benefited from more than $400 million worth of assistance to help pay for heating their homes.
Farmer said Cortland’s increase of almost 11 percent over last year’s number of benefits is significant but other counties, such as Westchester and Nassau, increased by 79.9 and 49 percent, respectively.
Cortland County Social Services Department Commissioner Kristen Monroe said Cortland’s percentage increase is likely relatively low because the county was probably already reaching most of its eligible households.
Farmer agreed, saying Cortland may have been good at reaching the eligible people in the past so it did not see as much of a gain as other counties.
Using the example of Westchester, Farmer said the median income is so high most residents would not have been eligible to receive benefits previously.
“By bumping up the threshold we were able to capture people who were ineligible otherwise,” Farmer said. He said the increases could also be a “sign of the times.”
“People may be getting laid off and looking for help any way they can get it,” Farmer said.

 

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