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Susan Lupori, a volunteer with LIFT-UP of Routt County, sorts winter coats inside the thrift store Monday morning. It may be harder for some low-income families to keep warm this winter if  proposed cuts to the Low Income Energy Assistance Program take place. It would mean less funding for fewer families in Routt County. Department of Human Services Director Vickie Clark will recommends that people lower their thermostats and bundle up at home.

Photo by John F. Russell

Susan Lupori, a volunteer with LIFT-UP of Routt County, sorts winter coats inside the thrift store Monday morning. It may be harder for some low-income families to keep warm this winter if proposed cuts to the Low Income Energy Assistance Program take place. It would mean less funding for fewer families in Routt County. Department of Human Services Director Vickie Clark will recommends that people lower their thermostats and bundle up at home.

Heating-assistance program, LEAP, faces funding cuts

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Nancy Mayer, a volunteer with LIFT-UP of Routt County, unpacks winter coats inside the Lufkin LIFT-UP Center Monday morning. LIFT-UP is already preparing for the demand for warmer clothing this winter and if proposed cuts to the Low Income Energy Assistance Program take place it might require some folks to bundle up at home. The cuts would mean less funding for fewer families in Routt County and Department of Human Services Director Vickie Clark will recommend that people lower their thermostats to avoid higher bills.

— Routt County Department of Human Resources Director Vickie Clark is concerned that a proposed reduction in funding to a program that helps local residents pay their heating bills during winter months will leave some of them in the cold.

The Colorado Department of Human Services, which administers the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, or LEAP, is proposing to reduce the average benefit locally by 27.5 percent and change the income eligibility requirements to the extent that 51 families would no longer receive assistance, Clark said.

“We’ll be able to help less families with less benefit,” she said. “My guess is there is going to be some people who are chilly.”

Clark said the program, which provides a one-time heating assistance payment from November to April, served 333 Routt County families last year. In 2010, the average payment was $448. It’s proposed to be reduced to $325.

Based on a random sampling of six detached single-family Steamboat homes, the average annual natural gas bill was $1,432, Atmos Energy spokesman Brian Martens said. Yampa Valley Electric spokesman Jim Chappell said he couldn’t provide an average heating cost for electricity because factors such as home size and insulation varied so much among homes in the county.

The proposed change to the income eligibility requirements for LEAP is from 185 percent of the federal poverty level to 150 percent. That’s an annual income reduction from $41,348 to $33,525 for a family of four.

According to a fact sheet provided by the Colorado Department of Human Services LEAP Administrator Todd Jorgenson, the reductions would be necessary if a proposed 50 percent reduction to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program occurs. The federal program provides 98 percent of the funding for LEAP.

The fact sheet indicated the proposed cuts are based on returning to 2008 funding levels, because increases since then were the result of fuel price increases.

However, during that time, it said the state’s unemployment rate has increased from 5.9 percent to 8.5 percent. It also said heating bills this winter are projected to be higher than they were in 2008, and the caseloads in 2012 are expected to jump 30 percent.

The fact sheet didn’t indicate a timeline for a decision about the proposed cuts, and Clark said she didn’t know when her department would find out.

Clark said the proposed reductions could lead Human Services to turn more people to LIFT-UP of Routt County’s emergency assistance program.

“I just think we’ll be trying to tap into other resources to help people not be cold,” she said. “I’m kind of worried about that, actually.”

Sherri McKnight, LIFT-UP’s food bank and case manager, said the organization’s utility assistance program served between 175 and 200 families from November 2010 through April 2011.

“If that does go through and the numbers are reduced,” she said about proposed LEAP funding reductions, “we will see an increase in clients needing assistance.”

LIFT-UP provides utility assistance through funding from an Energy Outreach Colorado grant, other grants, thrift store revenue and donations, McKnight said. She said payments ranged from $100 to $500 and were provided based on need.

McKnight said she has requested more Energy Outreach Colorado funding for this winter.

Because she expects less funding to be available, Clark said she would recommend people wear an extra layer of clothing at home, lower their thermostats and make sure their homes are properly winterized to avoid using more energy.

Chappell said YVEA offers a free energy analysis to customers where a technician will walk through their homes to make sure they are energy efficient. Atmos offers home energy evaluations, and Martens said customers can find tips to improve energy efficiency on their website.

To reach Jack Weinstein, call 970-871-4203 or email jweinstein@SteamboatToday.com

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