Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 11, 2013

New energy assistance rules leave uncertainty

BY MICHELLE MERLIN
mmerlin@record-eagle.com

— TRAVERSE CITY — Two or three people sought heat assistance from the Salvation Army every day in October, an unusually heavy stream this time of year, case workers said.

That’s because state Department of Human Services officials recently defined the period that people will be eligible for heating assistance from state sources -- it now begins Nov. 1, a contrast from past years when assistance was available Oct. 1.

The later date means those in need of financial help to pay for heat were forced to turn elsewhere.

“With the DHS not using state emergency relief money from Oct. 1 to Nov. 1, it really put a large strain on any funding we’ve had here,” said Val Stone, a case worker at the Salvation Army in Traverse City.

Last year, DHS made hundreds of utility payments in the five-county Grand Traverse region; the state made 288 heating fuel payments in October and 337 in November. Even more people qualify for heating assistance from local nonprofits, including the Salvation Army, TrueNorth Community Services, and the Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency.

But this year people who rely on heating assistance were set back not only by the new heating season, but by an administrative holdup in state and federal grant money that won't be available to nonprofits until December.

Details of a new statewide heating assistance program have yet to be released, leaving providers in a lurch.

“We haven’t seen the guidelines yet that tells us how much a client will be able to access and how many times, but that will be coming shortly,” said Stone.

Michigan Public Service Commission and DHS approved energy assistance grants totaling $89,615,000 to 14 different organizations. Part of that money came from a 99 cent charge that some energy companies — including Consumers Energy and DTE Energy — added to customers’ bills.

“This new law was just put in place this year and there was a limited amount of time to get the program up and running,” said Judy Palnau, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Public Service Commission.

The new emergency relief rules from DHS offer some more help for people in need. People are now eligible for assistance when they get a past-due notice, instead of having to wait for a shutoff. They are also supposed to use only one assistance provider, as opposed to going from one to another.

“When agencies were forced to wait for a shutoff, everything was in a crisis mode,” said John Stephenson, the executive director for Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency. “Past due is still worrisome, but we have more than five days or two days or sometimes one day to figure things out.”

Until the state figures things out, groups like Father Fred in Traverse City, which don’t receive state funding, are footing the bill, a total of $40,000 in utility assistance in October.

“The shift was a surprise to people this October, but the positive change is there is more state money available for utility assistance than there has been before,” said Pastor Jim Holwerda, chaplain at the Father Fred Foundation.