As Cold Settles in, Concerns Over Louisville Heating Assistance Program Persist
Nearly 10,000 Louisville residents struggling to pay utility bills are expected to get financial assistance over the next few months through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
The program, also known as LIHEAP, provides one-time funding directly to utility providers for eligible residents at or below 130 percent of the poverty line. A family of four is eligible for assistance with a monthly gross income of $2,628 or less, according to the Louisville Metro Department of Community Services.
But as WFPL News reported in September, Louisville housing advocates have taken issue with the administration of the program in recent years due to underutilized funding.
In fiscal year 2015, officials distributed nearly $4.2 million in LIHEAP assistance funds in Louisville.
But the program was allocated more than $4.8 million for the year, meaning city officials left more than $300,000 on the table after administrative costs, according to information provided in September by Darrell Aniton of the city's community services department, the local administering agency.
Federal grants fund the program, which is administered statewide by the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
This issue is fueled by a state policy that prevents urban areas from distributing the entirety of their allocated funds for LIHEAP assistance, said Cathy Hinko, the executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition.
During the crisis phase, residents must prove they risk having their utilities shut off for non-payment. That includes showing a "brown bill," or disconnection notice.
LIHEAP funding assistance concludes on March 31. Because it takes about a month to get a brown bill from a utility, residents can have six fewer weeks to file for assistance, Hinko said.
"By the time you get your brown bill, LIHEAP is over," she said.
When money allocated for Louisville goes unused and is returned to the federal government, it can be redistributed to rural areas, she said. Such areas have a larger share of residents with non-metered utilities, such as propane tanks, compared with more urban areas, Hinko said.
Residents with propane tanks don't have to wait for a brown bill, Hinko said. This means they can wait until the very end of the assistance period to reap the benefits — meaning a full tank of propane that can fuel their heat into April.
Last year, early April temperatures dipped into the mid-30s. And in 2014, the average April temperature was just below 60 degrees, National Weather Service data show.
Hinko said the deadline for metered residents should be extended to the end of April, which would give them the same access to assistance. That would need approval from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said Robert Jones, the executive director of Community Action Kentucky, which acts as the LIHEAP grantee for the cabinet.
But Jones said rural areas of the state tend to run out of LIHEAP funding before Louisville, so extending the deadline would not help rural residents.
In an email, a Cabinet for Health and Family Services spokeswoman said the LIHEAP program aims to serve households across the state with the lowest income and rural and urban areas must be considered when developing funding mechanisms.
Program policies are reviewed and discussed through “an open line of communication” between customers, advocates and the state, the spokeswoman said.
Jones said concerns over the deadline are not specific to Louisville.
"This actually is an issue for individuals throughout the state that use metered fuels," he said.
Across the state in 2015, more claims for assistance came from residents with metered utilities than non-metered utilities, Jones said.
Still, Hinko said a change in policy could benefit Louisville residents. She points to the surge in utility cutoffs reported by Louisville Gas and Electric that occur in March and April as evidence.
"We go from about 4,000 shutoffs a month to 7,000 shutoffs a month," she said. "That means we have need, but the state refuses to change its policies to accommodate and just give fairness, basic parity in access to crisis funds to cover the heating season."
Residents can receive as much as $400 in assistance, depending on need. Debbie Belt, a spokeswoman with the city's community services department, said Louisville Metro's LIHEAP program has been allocated about $3 million for the 2016 crisis phase.
The program is set to run through March 31 or until the funds are expended, she said.
To apply for LIHEAP assistance during the crisis phase, residents must schedule an in-person interview at one of three Louisville Metro government locations. They'll also need to bring identification and their most recent utility bill or eviction notice.
Belt said 640 appointments have already been scheduled.
Appointments can be made at the following locations:
- Central Office – Urban Government Center
810 Barret Avenue, Room 127, 40204
- East Office – Newburg Community Center
4810 Exeter Avenue, 40218
- South Office – Southwest Government Center
7219 Dixie Highway, 40258
(Caption: Snowfall last year in downtown Louisville, by Jacob Ryan/WFPL News)
This story has been updated.