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Heating assistance requests down statewide: Benefit available for low-income family, elderly, disabled

With the first snow of the season having passed through bringing with it the reminder that North Dakota winters are downright chilly, heating bills are sure to be on the way.

But even as more people flock to the area and take up residence, fewer are taking advantage of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

"The numbers have gone down over the last couple of years," said Melody Buresh, eligibility worker for Stark County Social Services. "It could be because of the warmer weather, so there isn't as much of a need. It could also be because of the higher income."

In Stark County, use of heating assistance peaked in 2006, with 616 households using the program. In 2012, that number dropped to 313.

Numbers statewide dropped last year as well in the wake of a mild winter. In 2011, 15,840 North Dakota households received an average benefit of $996, compared to 13,742 households receiving an average benefit of $873 for the winter that ended in May, according to the North Dakota Department of Human Services.

The majority of those receiving benefits are elderly, have a disability or families with children less than 5 years old.

"For the last few years, it has not created a stress on the program," said Carol Cartledge, director of economic assistance policy division for the North Dakota Department of Human Services. "Keeping in mind the program is for low-income families, some of the families coming into North Dakota may not qualify because of their income."

Many of those qualifying for heating assistance also qualify for the weatherization program, Cartledge said.

The weatherization program helps homeowners and renters make their home more energy efficient, and can include insulating attics and walls, making sure the duct work is properly installed and can help pay for a furnace or fridge if those appliances are deemed energy wasters, said Greg Beck, director of the weatherization in the home program for Community Action Services, Region VIII, which covers the southwest corner of the state.

Because the homes are more efficient, heating bills are lowered, he said.

"We help low-income families save money on their heating bills," Beck said, "which, in turn, saves money for social services so they can assist more people."

Renters can also partake in the weatherization program if their landlord has updated and made and recommended repairs to the furnace and water heater.

"We have come across some landlords who have refused to fix the problem so we were unable to weatherize homes because of it," he said.

Those living in RVs or similar housing may still qualify for heating and weatherization assistance if they meet income guidelines and their house is in a fixed location.

"We cannot pay for campers ... if they're transient vehicles, we cannot pay for any of their heating costs because tomorrow they could be in a different county," Buresh said. "But if their trailers are here and skirted and then if they financially qualify we could pay for propane in those houses."

In addition to following income guidelines, those qualifying must have less than $10,000 in assets not including the home they live in, two licensed, on-the-road vehicles, and any household goods, personal effects or property used to produce income. Those more than 60 years of age may have $15,000 in assets.

The income is a combination of all members of a household, including any renters or roommates, Buresh said.

Heating assistance does not cover 100 percent of the cost of fuel. Households must pay at least 5 percent, and should pay as much as they can afford.

"As we know, North Dakota's winters can be quite severe at times," Cartledge said. "And so for heating assistance, especially for low-income families who don't have the means to cover all of their costs, the program is very important. It's a health and safety issue."

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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