Heat assistance available to low-income residents

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Residents and business owners can expect rising heat bills as winter takes hold of the Yampa Valley and utility companies seek rate increases, but there could be pocketbook relief for some low-income residents.

Applications are pouring in for Colorado's Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, which helps needy residents pay their winter heating bills from Nov. 1 to April 30.

About 225 Routt County households received LEAP assistance last winter, said Ruth Ann Mewborn of the Routt County Human Services Department. That figure was down from 277 the year before.

The elderly make up a large portion of LEAP beneficiaries in Routt County, Mewborn said.

To be eligible for LEAP funding, household income must be within 185 percent of the federal poverty line. An individual can make no more than $18,888 annually to qualify, and a family of four must have a household income of $38,202 or less.

Last winter, the LEAP program and Energy Outreach Colorado helped more than 105,000 Colorado households with their energy bills. Energy Outreach Colorado is a nonprofit organization that raises funds for a number of energy assistance programs such as LEAP through individual and corporate donations. Customers of certain utilities, including Xcel Energy, can arrange to make a donation to Energy Outreach Colorado on their regular monthly bill.

"Right now, funding is looking pretty good for this next year. We're anticipating that donations are going to be strong," said Skip Arnold, executive director of Energy Outreach Colorado.

Last year, the state government cut its LEAP funding by more than half, and the federal government cut its funding by 27 percent. Funding is expected to be stable this year, Mewborn said.

For homes heated by natural gas, bills are expected to more than double next month, in part because of pending rate increases.

Xcel Energy has petitioned the Colorado Public Utilities Commission for a 53 percent price increase for residential and small-business natural gas customers for November. If approved, prices would rise from $0.3160 per therm to $0.4835 per therm.

The energy company applies to the PUC each month for a price adjustment because of the commodity price and market conditions for natural gas. The PUC is expected to approve Xcel's rate proposal Wednesday.

The price increases can be a double whammy for consumers this time of year because consumption is rising, as well. From October to November, residential use is expected to double, and business use increases an average of 89 percent.

Still, local customers are expected to benefit from lower gas prices more than last year because of favorable conditions in the industry. Bills are expected to be 9 percent to 10 percent lower than November 2006, according to Xcel.

Supply has been boosted in Colorado, where suppliers are ramping up production for a new pipeline scheduled to open in early 2008, and a lack of major hurricanes on the Gulf Coast has helped stabilize prices as well, Xcel Energy spokesman Tom Henley said.

Residents in need of assistance with their heat bills can call (866) HEAT-HELP to get application information for LEAP or be directed to other resources.

- To reach Melinda Dudley, call 871-4203

or e-mail mdudley@steamboatpilot.com

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