State Must Act To Ease Fuel Costs – 9/21/08 ConcordMonitor
The idea that New Hampshire citizens will freeze in their homes this winter because of an inability to afford high energy prices is simply unacceptable: legally, morally and humanly.
Among the oldest New Hampshire traditions is community caring and concern for neighbors in need. It is inscribed in our state law which mandates a legal duty to relieve and maintain vulnerable individuals and families. These laws have been with us since the early days of the state.
The coming winter demands the equivalent of a full-court press to ensure against the possibility that citizens will be living like they were under siege in Sarajevo during the winter in the Balkan War.
There is no magic form of relief to address all the need. Rather there are numerous ideas that if implemented collectively could greatly reduce the risk to public health and safety.
Probably most important is a big increase in the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The state received about $25 million to help 33,000 low-income families last winter. The state would need $50 million just to serve a comparable number this winter.
With more people needing fuel assistance, maximizing LIHEAP is critical. LIHEAP will exclude many families though. The state must be prepared to assist more middle-income families who will not qualify for LIHEAP eligibility.
To supplement LIHEAP, we need an appropriation of state dollars. There is recent precedent for such action. In November 2005, the Legislature allocated $10 million in state funds because it was expected LIHEAP money would be inadequate.
Other New England states like Vermont and Maine have created such state appropriations. New Hampshire should do this. To do otherwise would be a Katrina-like non-reaction.
For those who are a little better off financially, there could be a revolving loan fund for customers and fuel dealers. The state could contract directly for fuel oil deliveries for energy assistance customers and could pay the dealers to assure cash flow. These customers would be responsible for repayment of fuel loans.
Improving weatherization is another excellent idea. Maine has increased its weatherization funding by $2 million so that it is now spending $8.5 million to weatherize 2000 homes for this coming winter. Last year, our state program weatherized 757 homes. Typical weatherization
improvements can reduce fuel use by 20 percent.
The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services could resurrect its Emergency Assistance Program specifically to address fuel assistance. Such a program could apply to all adult categories and be accessible to those facing no heat.
For those on the food stamp program, adjustment in the standard utility allowance so that it reflected actual cost of utilities would tangibly help families.
A higher food stamp benefit would mean families could free up a little more money to spend on utility costs To its credit, the state has pushed the federal government on this front.
Similarly, the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority could raise its standard utility allowance and it could raise fair market rent so that more rental units might become available for Section 8 housing.
The home heating crisis is a housing crisis. Homeowners will be choosing between making mortgage payments and paying the energy bill. Renters with utilities included in the cost of rent may face rent hikes. In cases where the renter is responsible for utilities, the renter will face a choice like the homeowner.
A likely result will be a spike in foreclosures and evictions. It is safe to predict major pressure on homeless shelters. The state should consider expanding shelter capacity.
At the local level, there is no substitute for community organizing and promoting awareness of at risk families. The new Hopkinton initiative, Wood for Warmth, sounds like a model other communities could emulate. Hopkinton is creating a Wood Bank for those in need.
Neighborhood watch organizations to check on the elderly could also be a lifesaver. Turning the thermostat way down may be an unhealthy option chosen by those on fixed incomes. The combination of despair and lack of income could easily lead to choices that might otherwise be perceived as irrational. Prolonged exposure to extreme cold interferes with clear thinking.
While there are undoubtedly New Hampshire people who would rather die than seek help, if the above options are implemented, much less harm will occur. People will still fall through the cracks, but these suggested alternatives are preferable to finding dead bodies in the spring.