Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 13, 2013

Editorial: Aid slowdowns hit those most in need

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — It gets cold in Michigan, even when it should still feel like summer. Who hasn’t heard the furnace kick on in the middle of a chilly September night? And who hasn’t shivered when they opened their February heating bill?

Michigan has some of the highest electric and heating rates in the Midwest, and we all feel it.

So the idea of offering heating aid to the poor has always struck a chord here. And until 2009, that wasn’t a problem. That’s when wording to authorize the release of state heating aid funds through the Public Service Commission was inadvertently left out of an energy policy restructuring bill. When the issue hit the courts, a state Court of Appeals panel decided the omission actually represented legislative intent.

So despite the fact that $60 million already collected from state utilities was sitting in the heating fund in 2011 just waiting to be released, the Republican-controlled state House refused to free up the money - and pretty much refused to say why. State utility companies, which had contributed to the fund for decades, said it wasn’t their idea. In retrospect, it looks like an early tea party effort to get government out of citizens’ lives, even if that meant a few thousands went cold.

While aid has since then come more regularly, Lansing appears to be at it again.

The state Department of Human Services recently adjusted the period during which people are eligible for heating assistance from state sources to start Nov. 1, a full month later than the Oct. 1 start in past years.

The later date meant those in need of financial help to pay for heat were forced to turn elsewhere, usually to private service agencies like the Salvation Army, the Father Fred Foundation, TrueNorth Community Services or the Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency.

And there were plenty of folks in need. In 2012, the state Department of Human Services made 288 heating fuel payments in October in the five-county Grand Traverse area. So assuming at least that many this year, if not more, that was a major strain on private givers.

It gets worse. Due to an administrative holdup, state and federal grant money won’t be available to those nonprofits until December. And details about a new statewide heating assistance program have not yet been released, causing more headaches. There is an upside: the amount of money being set aside this year is greater, and DHS won’t make them wait until a client gets a shutoff notice to pay a bill. All these self-inflicted wounds are so unnecessary. For decades state utility firms diverted a couple bucks a year from Michigan homeowners to create the heating aid fund and those who needed help got it.

While there was no doubt some grousing, the vast majority of homeowners did it with no complaint - and would likely do so again. If they ever got the chance.