'Send help': Minnesotans worry about heating costs

‘Send help’: Minnesotans worry about heating costs

Betty Nordstrom has been worried since she received her energy aid grant notification about two weeks ago.

“They said my amount was $554 for fuel oil,” she said. “That’s such a low amount when fuel oil is $5.19 a gallon.”

This year, the Energy Assistance Grant paid for about 100 gallons of fuel, far less than the 500 gallons needed to heat his century-old home in a typical winter.

Nordstrom, 71, lives in the northern woods about 20 miles east of the Detroit Lakes. She is diabetic and uses a wheelchair. She manages on social security benefits.

“It’s only going so far. I don’t know what I’m going to do this winter after Christmas. Because that’s how long the oil will last, until Christmas,” she said.

Before the pandemic, Nordstrom reportedly paid $2.50 to $2.90 a gallon for fuel oil, according to the Federal Energy Information Agency.

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“Hearing Worries Every Day”

Nordstrom gets its energy assistance through the MAHUBE OTWA Community Action Agency, which serves five counties in north-central Minnesota.

The agency is hearing from many people surprised by the much smaller energy aid grants this year.

“We hear concerns every day, staff here are answering phone calls, people have sent letters asking for a new determination. We are certainly seeing some frustration with funding levels,” said Dan Josephson, director of energy programs. by MAHUBE OTWA. .

Josephson said so far this year, the average heating assistance grant has been $580. Last year, the average was $1,199.

This gap is similar across the state.

“The funding is about half that, it’s actually less than half of what it was last year. That’s why people are seeing a reduction in those benefits,” said Michael Schmitz, director of the Energy Assistance Program at the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

“In pre-COVID times, we typically received about $116 million each year for energy assistance,” he said. “Through the American Rescue Plan Act, we received an additional $167 million on top of the annual $116 million we receive. So we’ve more than doubled the amount of funding available for the US heating season. ‘last year.

This extra money allowed the state to provide larger individual heating assistance subsidies.

The agency also used the influx of funds to pay overdue heating bills for thousands of low-income Minnesotans.

The fund distribution formula takes into account income, the type of heating fuel used and other factors.

But the formula must also be adjusted to meet demand.

125,000 aid requests expected

“Our goal is not to miss or leave money on the table,” Schmitz said. “We try to thread the needle and serve everyone with the funding we get every year.”

He expects around 125,000 energy aid grant applications this year.

“There are probably more needs than funds available in a typical year. We serve between 20 and 25 percent of the estimated eligible population in the state of Minnesota, Schmitz said. “So basically if you step back and look at census data on household income, we estimate that there are over 500,000 households in the state that could be eligible for programs like the energy aid.”

Schmitz says federal funding for energy aid has remained static over the past decade, except for the big pandemic-related infusion last year.

Schmitz said the state received $19.7 million in additional federal funds this fall and he hopes Congress will provide more funding in response to inflated heating costs.

Additional dollars will be used for crisis funding, when people run out of fuel and have no other options.

Applications encouraged

Bill Grant is executive director of the Minnesota Community Action Partnership, representing state agencies that distribute much of the energy assistance programs.

“I urge people, even if they feel like the amount of aid may not be quite adequate, to go ahead and apply,” Grant said. “Because in doing so, if more money became available, they would potentially be in line for further help.”

Grant said the impact of rising fuel costs is being felt harder in rural areas where natural gas is not an option for home heating.

“With fuel prices being higher than they were, that’s going to create problems, especially for people with delivered fuels like propane or fuel oil, [because] typically these energy providers require upfront payment for a fill,” he said.

Betty Nordstrom wonders where she’ll find the money to fill her fuel oil tank before it runs out, and doesn’t see many options. “Maybe the good Lord will send help,” she said.

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