Americans get more help with their utility bills

Government at all levels is providing more assistance for the low income as energy costs hit the highest in years.

Mercifully, the Gillilands - and millions of Americans like them - may soon be getting more help with their heating bills.

Federal aid helps the couple meet about half their heating costs. Now the St. Louis City Council is considering diverting $1 million in excess utility taxes to assist low-income residents like the Gillilands even more. But even that won't be enough.

"I'm not sure how we're going to do this," says Ms. Gilliland, noting that her next bill may hit $500 - 30 percent of the family's monthly income.

From the Frost Belt to Dixie, government entities large and small are scrambling to find ways to offset the highest home heating bills in years:

* In Colorado, the legislature transferred $10 million in surplus money from the state's special oil- and gas-drilling tax fund to provide utility relief for low-income residents.

* Last week Illinois passed a law expanding heating bill subsidies to low-income families. It set the minimum qualification standard at 150 percent of the poverty level, rather than 125 percent, increasing the number of households receiving grants by 100,000.

* The federal government is giving more, too. Funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a federal initiative administered by the states, jumped 27 percent this year, to $1.4 billion. Another $300 million was earmarked in emergency allocations.

Some states are considering suspending the state tax on home heating fuel this winter as they did earlier with gasoline. Others are relying on the increases in LIHEAP funding, hoping it will be enough.

For individual states, such as Wisconsin, the increase in LIHEAP money can be substantial. It has gone from $43 million last year to $73 million this season.

Anticipating this winter's crunch, lawmakers in the Badger State also increased state assistance by 18 percent, added electric heating to the program, tacked on a surcharge to consumer fuel bills to fund assistance, and relaxed the usual late fall deadline for applying for such aid.

Still, it may not be enough. "We knew it was going to be a tough winter, but not this tough," says Judy Robson, a state senator from Beloit, Wis. "We're hearing from a lot of elderly people who have never applied for home energy assistance before. Being on fixed incomes and seeing first their prescriptions drugs going up and now their home heating bills, they're really getting squeezed."

Experts say three factors have converged to create "The Perfect Storm" of high heating bills: higher wholesale oil and gas prices coming into this winter relative to last, lower inventories due to the higher prices, and a lulling effect from consecutive warm winters and the coldest November and December on record. The result has been sticker shock from California to Kalamazoo.

According to the federal Energy Information Administration, the average household heating with oil will pay about 40 percent more this January than last, while the average natural gas bill will jump 70 percent. In some locales, the wholesale cost of gas has gone five fold.

The higher prices are forcing more exploration. The American Gas Association, for instance, reports that the number of exploratory rigs in the field has doubled since 1999, to 870. But it takes at least six to 18 months before gas makes it from a new well to the home.

For homeowners like the Gillilands, that means they will have to take steps on their own to keep their checkbooks in balance.

"We keep the thermostat at 68," says Ms. Gilliland. "We cut out cable TV, and we're buying cheaper food for ourselves and our two dogs and our cat."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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