State says it will expand its low income heating assistance program

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(Host) The state of Vermont is set to announce an expansion of its Low Income Heating Assistance Program.

Officials say the expansion is possible because federal funds for the program have doubled this year and heating oil prices have declined in recent months.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) Two months ago, Vermont was facing a crisis in its low income heating assistance program. Heating oil prices were much higher than last year and federal funding was in doubt.

But then two things happened. At the urging of the state’s congressional delegation, federal funds were more than doubled. And the cost of heating oil dropped considerably.

Senator Bernie Sanders urged the Douglas administration and legislative leaders to expand eligibility in the fuel assistance program:

(Sanders) “I think that these are just very, very tough times. And you have many senior citizens, many families, where you have young kids and people are really hurting and they’re worried about paying the fuel bill this winter. So I think given the fact that we have done well in terms of LIHEAP funding, we have more money than anticipated, my hope is that many thousands more people will be able to participate in this program in one way or another."

(Kinzel) Administration Secretary Neale Lunderville says he’s reached an agreement with legislative leaders to make some changes to the eligibility standards for the program. It’s a plan that he says will allow an additional 3,700 households to qualify for assistance, including a special group of elderly and disabled families:

(Lunderville) “We have been looking at ways to make sure that we’re taking care of the most vulnerable Vermonters this winter, who are struggling with their fuel costs and with their food costs and other expanding costs. The federal money that we received in this program does allow us to expand the number of Vermonters who will be eligible for the benefits."

(Kinzel) LIHEAP director Richard Moffi says the extra federal money comes at a time when demand for the program has increased dramatically.

(Moffi) “The demand has been consistent since the end of August. We have been consistently receiving over 26 percent more applications this year than at the same time last year. Currently, the fuel office has received 30,000 applications for assistance."

(Kinzel) The agreement between the Douglas administration and legislative leaders also expands eligibility guidelines for the state’s crisis program, which helps people when they unexpectedly run out of fuel. It’s a change that’s expected to benefit about 1,000 additional households.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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