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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Fuel assistance still in high demand despite warm winter

NASHUA – Despite a warm winter, the county’s fuel assistance program is still in high demand.

Southern New Hampshire Services Energy Director Louise Bergeron said Friday that while some residents who may have needed fuel assistance in previous years were able to get by on their own because of an unusually warm winter, just as many others signed up who had never needed assistance before.

The last day to apply for fuel assistance for this past winter is Monday.

While the need for assistance was just as high this winter, budget cuts and high fuel prices meant a smaller pool of resources available to help those in need.

“We’re grateful it was a warmer winter, because we would have seen many more drastic situations had it not been this warm,” Bergeron said.

The SNHS fuel assistance program provides elderly, handicapped and low-income residents with the financial assistance necessary to meet heating and utility expenses. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Bergeron said the need for these services is consistently high in the Greater Nashua area. The SNHS fuel assistance program served about 15,000 households last year, and Bergeron said Hillsborough County typically takes close to 33 percent of all applications for fuel assistance statewide.

This year, despite warm weather, the county received about 44 percent of applications statewide, she said. More than 10 percent of the applicants were from individuals or households that had never needed assistance before, she said.

As need in the area is increasing, funds for the state’s fuel assistance programs were cut.

This year’s funding is about $9 million less than last year, which means the state has not been able to help people who make more than twice the federal poverty level.

Bergeron said that in the past, the state was able to aid families making up to 60 percent of the state’s median income.

The new eligibility guidelines mean that this winter, the annual income cut-off ranges from $21,780 for one person to $75,260 for an eight-person household.

This cut in funding levels, combined with soaring fuel prices and a still tough economy, combined to counteract the benefits of winter’s warm weather this year, Bergeron said.

“We had benefits that did not even cover minimal delivery costs,” Bergeron said Friday.

Bergeron said she expects SNHS to continue to receive applications for fuel assistance up until the Monday deadline.

Because of the warmer winter, she said, some residents may have thought they could get by without assistance and then struggled to pay their heating bills. Locals who have outstanding bills can face their service being turned off in April and May, Bergeron said.

“We are here for a few more days to help them deal with last winter’s bills,” she said.

Anyone interested in applying for fuel assistance this year should contact the appropriate office to set up an appointment by Monday.

Call 647-4470 for the Manchester office, 889-3440 for the Nashua office or 924-2243 for the Hillsborough offices.

Danielle Curtis can be reached at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashuatelegraph.com.