An unusually expensive winter could mean a very warm summer for some local residents.
According to Jim Cesa, executive director of Community Action Organization of Delaware, Madison and Union Counties, participants around the state relied so heavily on the federal Home Energy Assistance Program for help last winter, funds for the program’s summer assistance have been depleted.
“Money for these two programs (the summer assistance and the winter assis-tance) comes from the same pool,” Cesa said.
Last year, the summer program had $125,000 available and spent about $93,000 for the three counties. This year, Cesa expects between 25 percent and 33 percent of that amount.
“At most that’s what I expect. So it is a significant reduction in funds,” he said.
Last year, the summer HEAP pro-gram spent about $31,000, helping 238 families in Madison County. While this year’s exact numbers are not known, Cesa expects be-tween $30,000 and $40,000 for Union, Madison and Delaware counties.
“When that money runs out, that money is out,” Cesa said. “In the past, if I ran out, I have been able to ask for more. Not this year. That’s it.”
The funding shortage has caused changes in the program. This year, the requirements have stayed the same, but the benefits have not.
In years past, applicants meeting the guidelines could receive as much as $175 in utility assistance, as well as an air conditioner every four years. This year, eligible families may receive a one-time assistance of up to $100. There is no provision for air conditioning.
The program usually runs from June 1 through Aug. 31. This year, it doesn’t start until July 1.
“We don’t want people standing on our doorstep on June 1, thinking they will be able to get help, but they can make appointments for July,” Cesa said.
While he doesn’t want participants to expect funds too early, Cesa wants to remind them the program is first-come, first served. He said seniors often try to maximize their assistance by waiting until a utility bill exceeded $175.
“We are suggesting they not do that this year because they will lose out,” Cesa said. “Don’t wait until that second bill, when your bill is above $100, because if you wait, there may not be funds available and there will be nothing we can do. You will be stuck with the whole amount.”
Community Action is working with the Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging to acquire home repair, health and safety funds to help purchase air conditioners for seniors who meet the guidelines and have a medical need.
“I think I can solve the problem for seniors that need air conditioning,” Cesa said.
That does not fix the whole problem, he added. In 2007, Community Action gave away 97 air conditioners in Madison County, 15 of them to seniors. The rest went to low-income families.
“And that trend is growing,” Cesa said.
“The bad thing is, in the past, this program has served non-seniors as well—families with a need. That will not be available this year, at least not at this time. We are trying to work with some of the other area agencies to see if we can meet that need locally.”
He said private donations can be used to purchase air conditioning units.
“As the price of everything is going up, we are seeing a reduction in disposable income. People are spending their money on groceries, on gasoline. These are the people most vulnerable in the community and unless something changes, they will ultimately have an obligation we can’t assist them with.”
He said if Community Action cannot help these people keep their utilities and cannot provide air conditioners to those who medically need them, the costs “will ultimately filter down to society to pay.”
He used the example of a family that needs a $125 air conditioner for a medical condition. If it’s not received, a family member could need hospitalization, possibly racking up thousands of dollars in bills that will be absorbed by Medicare or the community. Additionally, other family members could be forced to miss work, creating a greater financial hardship and a hardship for the employer.
To donate funds for air conditioning units, call Community Action, 740-852-3511.