High electric bills? HEAPs of help available

ENERGY — On a scorching day in late May, the Spring Hill Resource Center offered residents the opportunity to learn about two public-assistance programs, including Volusia County’s Low Income Home Energy Program, known as LIHEAP. Gilbert Taylor and his young daughter, Sabrina, were among 30 households who completed applications for the service, which assists with energy costs.

As another summer and another hurricane season set in, the greatest unsung hero of the season clicks on, sucking up electricity and causing our summer electric bills to soar. We’re speaking, of course, about air conditioning.

Electric bills can bump up to nearly double that of the winter months in Florida, and even higher for those with outdated or malfunctioning equipment. Older homes without central air may rely on window units, which by and large are much less energy-efficient.

The resulting cost can be a major burden for a low-income household — after all, not having air conditioning can pose a health risk, especially for the very young or elderly.

To meet the need, the Human Services Division of Volusia County government offers energy assistance to low-income families through the Low Income Home Energy Program, called LIHEAP.

On a recent day at the Spring Hill Resource Center, county officials helped some 30 residents and their families apply for the program, which works with electric companies to reduce residents’ bills and also offers emergency assistance.

LIHEAP staff also reached out to residents with a booth at the Hurricane Preparedness Expo at the Volusia County Fairgrounds June 8.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity allots between $1.5 million and $2 million a year to LIHEAP, and every year, the opportunity is used by thousands of families to help defer the costs of increasingly high electric bills.

“Approximately 3,000 households a year use the program,” Volusia County Human Services Manager Clayton Jackson said.

LIHEAP is split into two sub-programs, Jackson said. One is for crisis situations, such as past-due bills and disconnections. Under the crisis program, new energy customers can also apply for help to pay deposits that are required to establish service. The amount available caps at $600, which means if a household has an electric bill that is $650, they must first pay $50 to lower the amount before applying for the funds.

The crisis program is split into two seasons — summer (April 1 through Sept. 30) and winter (Oct. 1 through March 31) — so residents have two opportunities a year to apply for emergency assistance.

The other program, LIHEAP HOME, provides a home-energy credit once a year, up to the tune of $475. The credits are applied directly to residents’ bills.

“Most people know us through the crisis program,” Jackson said. “I’m trying to change that misconception.”

“I like to ask people three questions: Are you low-income? Do you live in Volusia County? Do you pay your own electric bill? If the answer to all three is yes, you are eligible for energy credits through our program,” he said.

Even county residents who don’t owe past-due electric bills could be eligible.

“Some people may ask, what’s the purpose of the home-energy credit if you have a zero-dollar balance?” he said. “Well, if you’re low-income, there are a lot of expenses: medical expenses, rent could be due, you could be getting less hours at work, and a lot of factors. The home-energy credit alleviates the financial burden so people can spend funds elsewhere.”

The total amount depends on a variety of factors, with income as the baseline. Additional funds are available for households with members who have disabilities, those age 60 or older, and/or households with children 5 years old and younger.

The two LIHEAP sub-programs could both be used by the same household, Jackson said.

To apply, county residents need their most recent electric bill and proof of residency, and all members of the household must produce a birth certificate or some other form of identification, along with a Social Security card for each member, and proof of income.

The total household income must be lower than 150 percent of the federal poverty level. For one person in a household, that would be $18,210. A list of income guidelines is included on the official application.

“I think we’re making a difference,” Jackson said.

The Kentucky native has been manager of Human Services in the county for the past three years.

“I am very fortunate to be in a great community, and in a great organization with the county,” Jackson said.

He said some days are challenging, but the rewards are great.

“People who are in tears, who weren’t sure they would be able to make it, who didn’t know what to do. There are days like that that put a smile on your face. The case workers and staff here have a true passion to help people,” he said.