Requests for HEAP assistance to remain high


Photo illustration by Joe McIntyre

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Although heating costs are expected to be lower this winter, county officials aren’t anticipating a decline in demand for the federal Home Energy Assistance Program.
The Department of Social Services began accepting HEAP applications for the 2006-07 season Wednesday.
“With prices the way they’ve been, people just aren’t getting as much fuel for their money,” said DSS Director of Services Brian Moore, who added that increased awareness of HEAP has also likely contributed to increased demand. “If, say one year you’re getting $500 and they get the same the next year but the cost goes up dramatically, you’re going to need more assistance.”
Last year, in the first month it accepted applications for the HEAP program, the county Department of Social Services saw a more than 50 percent increase in requests for assistance from 2004.
Throughout the entire 2005-06 winter season, DSS issued 5,479 HEAP benefits to individuals, up from 4,346 the year before.
This year, for the first time since the winter of 2000-01, residential heating fuels such as natural gas, heating oil and propane will likely cost less than they did the previous winter, according to the Energy Information Administration, which gathers data for the United States government.
In the Northeast, the EIA projects a decrease in the cost of natural gas of about 15 percent, a drop in propane costs of 4.5 percent, and only a slight increase of 0.7 percent for the cost of heating oil.
Because last winter was unusually warm, the EIA is projecting an increase in consumption of about 6.5 percent for all three types of fuel, but overall, it projects a decrease in average money spent of about 10 percent for Northeast users of natural gas, from $1,237 per home last year, to $1,117 this year.
Propane users will spend, on average, just $25 more than last year, according to the EIA, while users of heating oil will see about a $100 increase — a modest number compared to a $300 increase the year before.
Still, energy providers caution that homeowners shouldn’t expect too dramatic a drop in total costs.
“The American Gas Association is predicting prices are down, but that we couldn’t rightfully expect to have it as warm as we did last year, so I think it’s a wash as far as natural gas goes,” said Alberto Bianchetti, a spokesman for National Grid.
James Marshall, chief operating officer at E&V Energy Co., which provides heating oil and propane locally, said the decrease in prices was a welcome change, but he wasn’t sure how long the lower prices would last.
“I certainly thought the markets were too high before and it was totally unexpected to see them drop the way they have,” Marshall said. “From our side of the business, we hope prices continue to drop because it helps us and it helps the customers.”
Marshall noted that a precipitous increase in fuel prices over the past five years had put a strain on E&V’s customers.
“These prices are still historically much higher than they’ve been,” he said.
The warm winter last year did not make up for the increase in price, Marshall said, noting a 50-cent per gallon increase in heating oil costs and a more than 30-cent per gallon increase in propane costs.
Anyone experiencing such hardships should contact DSS to determine if they’re eligible for HEAP, Moore said.
Eligibility is based on household size and income, he said, with the general requirement being that the household fall within 60 percent of the state median income.
For instance, a household of three making $2,850 or less per month would be eligible, while a household of four would be eligible if it was making $3,393 or less per month.
The amount allocated varies, Moore said, but the typical benefit is around $400 for a winter season.
Anyone interested in applying for HEAP assistance can call the DSS HEAP Unit at (607) 753-5133.
Residents over the age of 60 can also apply through the Cortland County Area Agency on Aging.


Groton man pleads guilty to child porn

Staff Reporter

BINGHAMTON — A Groton man could serve as many as 30 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to federal child pornography charges Wednesday.
Douglas Jennings, 42, pleaded guilty in Federal District Court to one count of production of child pornography, 30 counts of receiving child pornography via the Internet, and one count of possession of child pornography, all felonies, the United States Attorney’s Office said this morning.
The Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department and the FBI arrested Jennings on June 12 after he admitted to officials that he was videotaping an 11-year-old girl in suggestive possess while she undressed.
The girl also provided statements to police stating that Jennings has been abusing her.
According to a June indictment, Jennings abused the girl from 2001 through June 12.
It is the policy of the Cortland Standard to provide only as much information about crime victims as necessary to give a clear and accurate report of the facts of a story.
When arrested, Jennings also possessed hard drives, floppy disks, videotapes, photographs and other materials that contained numerous images of child pornography, the indictment said.
In addition to the federal charges, Jennings was also arrested on state charges of first-degree course of sexual conduct against a child, a felony, stemming from the same incidents with the girl.
Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson was unable to be immediately reached for comment about whether her office will go forward with those charges. She said in July, following the federal indictment, that her office has six months to indict Jennings on the state charges.
Jennings will be sentenced on March 1 in front of U.S. District Court Judge Thomas J. McAvoy in Binghamton and could face anywhere from 15 to 30 years in federal prison.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Miroslav Lovric prosecuted the case.



Public split over house in Homer

Staff Reporter

HOMER — Residents were split on the fate of a house next to the Town Hall at a public hearing on a Town Hall renovation project Wednesday night.
About half of the approximately 20 people who attended the meeting made comments. About half of those who spoke said the house should be torn down to make room for parking. The other half said the house — which the town recently bought —should be preserved to bring the town more property tax revenue and preserve the character of Main Street.
Village Board member Roy Crandall said the house should be razed because the Town Hall does not have enough parking spaces as it is. Knocking down the house, which is about 25 feet north of the Town Hall, would add 20 to 30 parking spaces for the Town Hall, said Randy Crawford, an architect with Syracuse-based Crawford & Stearns.
But North Main Street resident Stephanie Spina disagreed. She lives directly across the street from the Town Hall and does not see all that much traffic, she said. Spina said she preferred to see the house used for town offices.
Kim Hubbard, who lives on North Main Street, agreed the house should be preserved. Visiting friends often marvel at the village’s historical integrity, he said.
A parking lot would ruin that, he added.
“I think that begins to encroach,” Hubbard said.
But Fran Armstrong said that’s not the case.
“There’s no historical value of that house next door whatsoever,” she said. “We can draw people to Homer without it as much as we can with it.”



East River Road bridge reopens today

Staff Reporter

The East River Road Bridge, closed since it was damaged during flooding in April of 2005, reopened today.
The approximately 60-foot bridge, which crosses Cheningo Creek in Truxton, was completely dismantled and replaced by the county Highway Department, said Highway Superintendent Don Chambers.
“The project was almost totally designed and constructed with Cortland County forces — from the engineering department right through _to construction teams,” Chambers said. “It’s a great achievement for the workers at the Highway Department.”
The new bridge increases the length, or span, from the original bridge, which was built in 1953, from 57 feet to about 70 feet, and increases the width from about 28 feet to 32 feet.
“By increasing the span of the structure, we’ve increased the hydraulic capacity, which means more water can pass through (under the bridge),” Chambers said.
The Highway Department has also added steel piling to the new bridge, making it more structurally sound and resistant to erosion.