Government offers help for heating

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Ruth Ann Mewborn is convinced there are low-income families living in Routt County who are eligible for financial assistance, but are either too proud to ask for it, or don't know it is available. With winter closing in, she's eager to reach out to them.

"I know they're out there," Mewborn said. "Usually it's seniors and I don't find out about them until they get sick. They just don't know to come in."

Mewborn is a benefits technician with Routt County Human Services. She said many seniors don't realize they could be eligible for an additional "old age pension" if they are subsisting solely on Social Security.

For example, a single person receiving $300 a month in Social Security might be eligible for an additional $268 in pension funds. For people between the ages of 60 and 64, the pension is paid for by the federal government. And for those older than 64, it is state funded, Mewborn said.

Many of the people Mewborn works with are referred to her by the hospital when they need help paying for health care. Sometimes, it is pride that has kept them from seeking help sooner, Mewborn said.

"I always tell them, they have worked all of these years and they were contributing to the community," Mewborn said. "Now, it's time for society to contribute to them."

Seniors aren't the only people who can apply for help to get through the winter.

Mewborn's office at the Routt County Courthouse is accepting applications for Low-income Energy Assistance Program funds that will help offset a portion of this winter's heating bills for low income households.

People who qualify for LEAP assistance will have checks mailed directly to their energy supplier twice this winter. The amount shows up as a credit on their energy bills, whether their source of heat is electricity, natural gas or propane. People in Routt County can even get LEAP funding to offset the cost of coal and firewood, Mewborn said.

Many low-income families in rural Routt County depend upon propane to heat their homes.

Jeremy Glaisher, district manager for Ferrellgas in Steamboat Springs said that although the price of propane here is higher than it was last winter, he has seen it stabilize in recent weeks.

"The price of propane is driven by the price of crude (oil) and supply and demand," Glaisher said. "Some traders are expecting it to go up and some actually foresee a dip."

Glaisher said current propane prices range between $1.10 and $1.30 a gallon compared to a range of .90 cents to $1.10 last winter.

Greeley Gas, which supplies natural gas to Routt County, is expected to request permission from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to raise rates next month. A company spokesperson was not available for comment on Friday.

The source of LEAP funds is the federal government. Mewborn said last winter $49,795 was distributed to energy companies on behalf of 106 local families.

Changes in the LEAP program will make the program more effective for Routt County's low-income families this winter, Mewborn predicted.

The amount of benefits provided is determined by a formula that takes into account income, resources, or assets, and factors like any government housing subsidies already being received by the family.

Assets that could reduce the amount of LEAP benefits include second cars and bank accounts, Mewborn said.

This winter, the "resource maximum" permitted for families receiving LEAP assistance is $5,000, up from $3,000. Income limits vary a family of four can make $2,629 a month, while a single person can make $1,287.

Also new this year is an increase in the minimum benefit per household from $50 to $100.

That will be welcome news to people living in the Oak Creek seniors apartments, Mewborn said.

Because their housing is subsidized, many of the South Routt seniors received just $50 last winter, not enough to really make a difference in their winter heating bills.

The maximum benefit has also been increased from $600 to $700 per household this winter, Mewborn said.

And, depending upon how much money is used up during the first half of the winter, some households can see as much as $800 to offset their heating bills.

Mewborn said one of the most important aspects of the LEAP program is the weatherization of beneficiaries' homes. It helps to ensure that energy dollars don't simply dissipate through windows that are not caulked and uninsulated attics.

Many LEAP recipients request weatherization services, which are provided at no charge, Mewborn said. But for the first time this year, recipients of LEAP assistance may not turn weatherization down. A work crew visits the Steamboat area from Silverthorne and checks homes for leaky window sashes, malfunctioning furnaces, skimpy insulation and a variety of factors that can drain a home of warmth Mewborn said.

Each house covered by LEAP assistance can be weatherized at government cost no more than once every 15 years.

Families who think they might qualify for LEAP assistance may contact Mewborn or Tina Look at 879-1540 any time between now and April 30.

To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210

or e-mail: tomross@amigo.net

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