Good Idea + Bad Follow Through = TRUE Grant Program

A couple months ago I posted an article about how certain energy safety net rules are overlooked. At the end of the article I mentioned a new program known as the TRUE Grant program and stated it “hasn’t been overly successful in averting shutoffs for moderate income families.” The purpose of my writing here is to 1) shed some light on this still under-utilized program, 2) ask state policy makers what is being done to improve upon it, and 3) tell people where to go or who to call if they need help with their utility bills.

First a brief history. Due to the “Great Recession” a number of legislators felt a need to help struggling families with their utility bills. Legislation was introduced in the New Jersey Assembly in 2008. Senate bill S3064 was introduced in November, 2009. Both bodies passed the bill overwhelmingly in January, 2010 and it was signed by then Acting Governor Stephen Sweeney. The legislation provides $25 million for utility
assistance grants for qualified households. Technically, it became P.L. 2009, Chapter 207.

It was assumed that grants would commence on or about July 1, 2010 as indicated in the legislation. Instead, the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) voted in November, 2010 to put the program out for bid. The Board issued a Notice of Availability of Grants, advising nonprofits in the state how they might become the program administrator. The Board of Public Utilities finally awarded the $25 million grant to the Affordable Housing Alliance, an agency located in Eatontown and issued a February 10, 2011 news release.

The Star Ledger printed an article in their Sunday, February 5, 2012 newspaper titled
“NJ Offers First Year Of Heating Assistance For Moderate Income Families”. The program finally began March, 2011 according to Michele Torres, director of the Temporary Relief for Utility Expenses (TRUE) program. In a year’s time the program has only given out $4.5 million to approximately 5400 households. Over $20 million remains available “to middle-income families who normally pay utility bills but are in a tough spot”.

Initially, the Affordable Housing Alliance partnered with five agencies in the state but has since increased the number slightly to 12. The TRUE website lists the local intake agencies as:
1) Atlantic Human Resources, 609-404-4801 (Atlantic);
2) Bergen County Community Action Partnership, 201-968-0200 ext 7008 (Bergen);
3) Affordable Housing Alliance, 732-982-8710 (Burlington, Cape May, Monmouth, Passaic, Sussex, Warren);
4) Camden County Council on Economic Opportunity, 856-964-6887 (Camden, Gloucester);
5) Bethel Development Corp., 856-327-9092 (Cumberland, Salem);
6) La Casa de Don Pedro, 973-485-0795 or 0796, ext 4415 or 4409, opt 7 (Essex, Union);

7) P.A.C.O., 201-217-0583 (Hudson);
8) Mercer County Hispanic Association (MECHA), 609-587-8800 (Mercer, Hunterdon);
9) Puerto Rican Action Board (PRAB), 732-828-4541 (Middlesex);
10) Morris County Organization for Hispanic Affairs (MCOHA), 973-644-4884 (Morris);
11) Ocean, Inc., 732-244-9041 ext 10 or 11 (Ocean);
12) Catholic Charities, 908-333-2271 (Somerset).

To fulfill the mission within a reasonable period of time the BPU and Affordable Housing Alliance (AHA) must increase the number of local intake agencies. AHA must rethink why many nonprofits are/were not interested in becoming a partner. Could it be due to unrealistic administrative reimbursement? Everyone involved in the TRUE program must do a better job at outreach. As one energy expert recently said to me, “The TRUE program is the best kept secret in New Jersey.” AHA must also revisit the unrealistic rules they have put in place. Would a legislator have sponsored the bill or voted for passage if he or she knew that households already shutoff would not be eligible for funds?

The statewide energy nonprofit, NJ SHARES was created so non-poor households had a place to turn to. AHA should follow their example.

Author: Michael Swayze

A retired county welfare agency administrator, who combines social work and computer skills to share information on community resources via the Internet since 1995. Active in voter engagement activities in Philadelphia, PA.

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