A Bad Storm Forming For Energy Consumers

The large ranks of New Jersey’s unemployed face a difficult winter based on the programs currently available to assist energy consumers. In recent years Washington and Trenton responded to what has been called the Great Recession. However, this winter the response has been less than expected. New Jersey has a number of programs to help meet the energy needs of low income customers and the thousands out of work. These programs – LIHEAP in particular – face a difficult year.

LIHEAP stands for Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program which is 100% federally funded. Last year it was funded at $5.1 billion. Under the current Congressional Continuing Resolution – scheduled to run out December 3 – LIHEAP is funded at $3.3 billion. As a result, New Jersey policymakers have taken the following actions:
1) Reduced eligibility guidelines from 225% of the Federal Poverty Index to 200%. This will result in tens of thousands households not eligible this year, even if they have the same household income as last year.
2) LIHEAP benefits in New Jersey have been reduced 20% across-the-board.
3) Emergency benefits – including those heating by oil – will be reduced to $450. This is not even enough to order a 200 gallon minimum delivery.
4) Funds intended for non-LIHEAP eligible families via New Jersey SHARES, originally expected last July are still being held up.

Heating oil prices are currently 36 cents higher than a year ago according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Heating Oil and Propane Update website. A recent price of residential heating oil in New Jersey was $3.18 a gallon, according to the executive director of the New Jersey Fuel Merchants Association.

In terms of weather forecasts, the Farmer’s Almanac predicts the eastern third of the United States will face colder than normal winter temperatures. While I don’t regularly buy a copy of the Almanac or have a vested interest in it, you can read about their long range winter forecast.

Households who are above the LIHEAP income guidelines may be able to get help from the statewide nonprofit New Jersey SHARES, assuming they receive long awaited funding. A bill, S3064 , signed into law in January, 2010 was to provide $25 million to New Jersey SHARES beginning in July, 2010. The funding has been held up due to political and administrative delays, even though many families have their utilities shut-off or uncertain where they will find money to pay for fuel. The Board of Public Utilities currently is holding the purse strings and recently issued an announcement about future funding. You can read their recent press release .

If you are above the LIHEAP income guidelines but hope to get help from New Jersey SHARES, you should first contact your utility company and request to be placed in a protected category under the Winter Termination Program rules. If unsuccessful, contact the Board of Public Utility’s Division of Customer Assistance at 800-624-0241.

Households that are applying for LIHEAP benefits – or inquiring about the status of their LIHEAP and/or USF application – should contact the LIHEAP Hotline at 800-510-3102. The Hotline is well staffed and able to handle calls Monday through Saturday from 8am to 5pm. It is suggested calls be made to this call center rather than to the local application agency.

For more information on energy assistance programs visit the New Jersey Community Resources’ NJ energy page.