It’s one critical leg of a three-legged stool that helps low-income Vermonters stay warm through the winter.

One of those legs is the WARMTH program, which provides emergency fuel assistance to Vermont households, up to $225 a year.

The private, statewide program is supported by the Vermont’s utilities and through private donations. It’s administered through the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO), one of the state’s five Community Action Agencies.

“What we’ve seen this winter is that people have received their seasonal benefit, they’ve come in for a WARMTH benefit and now it’s February and they’ve also had their crisis fuel benefit,” said Jan Demers, CVOEO executive director. “So we’re in a difficult situation that we’ll probably go back to the state and see if there’s anything else that can be done because there’s more and more families that are using up all the benefits they have just to keep warm.”

With one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, there’s little question Vermont’s economy is doing better.

But that one statistic belies that fact that many Vermonters, especially those stuck in low-paying jobs or those on fixed incomes, need a hand to get by especially during the winter when fuel bills take a huge bite out of their income.

The biggest source for that help is the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance program, or LIHEAP.

Starting in November the state began distributing its annual LIHEAP allocation of $20.3 million to help qualifying households.

Sean Brown, deputy commissioner of the state’s Economic Services Division, said the number of households needing seasonal fuel assistance is on the decline.

Brown said in 2013 those in need of help peaked at just under 28,000 households. This year, he said the state is projecting a caseload of 20,000.

“So far the caseload is tracking in that direction,” he said.

Of the $20.3 million in LIHEAP funds, the bulk of the money, $13.5 million, is earmarked toward seasonal fuel assistance, said Richard Giddings, the state’s LIHEAP director. He said $2.1 million goes toward crisis fuel assistance and $3 million for weatherization, with the remainder going toward smaller programs that include fuel tank replacement.

Green Mountain Power is a major contributor to the WARMTH program, donating $133,000 this season. Since it began in 1986, WARMTH has helped 90,000 households with emergency fuel assistance.

GMP spokeswoman Kristin Kelly said in addition to the corporate donation, customers last year donated $40,568.

“Depending on how severe the winter is and how much fuel assistance is available, this helps to close the gap for people who find themselves in a really tough situation,” Kelly said.

The program is also supported by other utilities. Burlington Electric Department and Vermont Gas Systems each donated $20,000. Last year, VGS customers donated $8,000 to WARMTH. VGS also offers a 20-percent low-income discount to qualified customers.

As a nonprofit, Vermont Electric Cooperative does not make a cash donation but does encourage its customers to make a donation.

Last year, WARMTH raised $475,222 and served 2,804 households, Demers said. In the CVOEO area, which includes Chittenden, Addison, Franklin and Grand Isle counties, 1,750 households received assistance from WARMTH.

In Central Vermont, Capstone served 309 households; BROC, 316 households; Northeast Kingdom Community Action, 165 households; and SEVCA, 264 households.

“For people who are elderly or for single moms or for people who are disabled, they’re fragile and the cold has a much harder impact,” Demers said.

She said while lower fuel prices help stretch the dollars raised by WARMTH, the more significant factor is the cold, which means households burn through more fuel to stay warm.

Closely linked to fuel assistance is the weatherization program. Households in need of fuel assistance are put in touch with a Community Action Agency in their area so their houses can be buttoned up.

“That saves not only on the carbon footprint but it saves on the expense of energy and it lessens the burden on the crisis fuel and the LIHEAP and the WARMTH,” Demers said.

With plenty of winter still ahead, BROC will have to rely on every source of fuel assistance available to help those in need, said BROC Executive Director Thomas Donahue, whose area of responsibility is Rutland and Bennington counties.

He said BROC has a state crisis fuel allocation this heating season of $192,500 with $72,500 remaining.

In addition, BROC has $127,000 in WARMTH program funds.

Donahue said WARMTH funds are distributed to households after they’ve tapped into their one-time crisis fuel allowance (up to 125 gallons).

“We will be likely exhausting all of our resources this season,” Donahue said.

He said the funds for each qualifying household are paid directly to the fuel dealer.

BROC also has two fuel-related fundraising programs, Wheels for Warmth and Ski for Heat.

In the three years Donahue has been at BROC, he said the winter of 2018-2019 is the busiest. While weather plays a large part in that equation, Donahue also said BROC has been doing a better job of letting the public know what assistance is available.

To help more Vermonters, Brown said the state expanded its eligibility requirements. Under federal rules, states could use the federal poverty level or median household income as the qualifying yardstick.

“Historically, Vermont had used the federal poverty level measure and under the federal rules you can only use federal LIHEAP dollars to serve up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level,” he said.

When the state switched last year and began using 60 percent of state median household income as the benchmark, Brown said more households became eligible.

He said in Vermont that equates to 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

For crisis fuel assistance, he said the state continues to use the federal poverty level which qualifies households up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

In addition to LIHEAP, Brown’s Economic Services Division also administers the 3 Squares food benefit program and ReachUp, a job skills and work assistance program for needy families.

“Across all of those major programs, we’ve been seeing fairly consistent reductions similar to LIHEAP,” Brown said.

He attributed the decline “to the economy improving and also Vermont’s higher minimum wage ($10.78) contributes to that as well.”

Brown said the average seasonal fuel assistance benefit this year is $735 or approximately 34 percent of a household’s needs for the winter.

Donations to WARMTH can be made online through CVOEO’s website: https://cvoeo.networkforgood.com/projects/60154-warmth.

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