Minnesota will receive another $56 million in federal aid to help people struggling to pay winter heating bills.
The money will bring total seasonal funding for Minnesota's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to about $143 million. But that's nearly an 11 percent drop from last year, prompting some advocates to worry this year's funding may fall short of the need.
This latest energy assistance funding comes as a big relief to many around the state. For awhile it wasn't clear if there would be any additional funding for the program. It had been held up, in part, by Congressional politics.
Many of the local agencies that administer the program had already run out of money. They were accepting applications, but telling low income families they had no way to help them.
This week in Bemidji, energy assistance coordinator Patty Hargreaves had to turn away several families who were facing disconnection of heating service. Hargreaves said that's been a daily occurrence in her office for months.
"The best we could do is we were flagging applications that were emergencies," Hargreaves said. "So once that funding does trickle down to us, then we'll be pulling emergency applications out and just trying to find out if the people had been able to resolve the emergency or if we can still help them out now."
Statewide, agencies have received more than 146,000 applications for heating assistance. That's up six percent compared to the same time last year, and it's a 16 percent jump from two years ago.
Some people are worried that the increased need, combined with a more than $17 million drop in funding from last year, could spell trouble.
Hargreaves doubts Minnesota's funding will be enough to make it through the winter as the number of applications for assistance are higher than this time last year.
"With the funding being lower, the grants are lower this year across the board pretty much," she said. "I don't think it's going to come out even so we can serve everyone who's going to be applying."
State officials, however, are optimistic that they may receive another federal allotment for the program this season.
Mike Rothman, the newly appointed commissioner of the Department of Commerce, hopes to see more federal money before spring.
Rothman said even though many in Congress are looking for ways to make big cuts in federal spending, he expects lawmakers will realize that heating assistance is critical to many low income families. The average income for families that receive heating help is about $16,000.
"I really truly believe that regardless of which part of the political aisle you're from, all these folks are in need," he said. "They're the people who can barely survive in these cold winter months, and as people are looking at federal dollars and spending, I'd just emphasis that these funds come at a crucial time to help people in need to get by. And it's kids, disabled folks and senior citizens that we're most concerned about."
Families that get heating assistance this winter will, on average, receive grants of around $500. Last year, the average was about $600.