By Doug Ireland
---- — Administrators of New Hampshire’s fuel assistance program received some heartwarming news this week — the state will not see any cuts in aid.
The $22.1 million received yesterday is two weeks late because of the federal government shutdown. But it’s at least the same amount awarded last year, according to Celeste Lovett, fuel assistance program manager for the New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning.
The state received additional money for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program in June, for a total of $24.3 million, Lovett said. New Hampshire is in line to receive that again, but won’t receive the final word for months.
The news comes in the wake of cuts to the program in recent years. New Hampshire received $26 million in fuel aid in 2011 — down from $36 million in each of the two previous years and $50 million the year before that.
But the government shutdown made some fuel assistance applicants nervous that they wouldn’t get the help they need before cold weather set in.
“There was a definite concern because we did receive calls about how it would affect us,” said Ryan Clouthier, energy director of Southern Hampshire Services.
Southern New Hampshire Services provides fuel assistance to residents of Rockingham and Hillsborough counties.
The delay prompted members of the U.S. Senate on Monday to request that U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius release heating assistance money as soon as possible.
The senators include Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. The funding was released the next day.
“I welcome the release of critical LIHEAP funds that will help low income and families and seniors in New Hampshire stay warm,” Ayotte said. “With the cold winter season fast approaching, I will continue to urge the Department of Health and Human Services to release remaining LIHEAP funds as quickly as possible.”
Lovett and Clouthier said applicants were still encouraged to fill out applications, despite the uncertainty caused by the shutdown. There was concern people would be discouraged from seeking the help the needed.
“Once the federal government got back up, they got it up and going,” Lovett said.
Applicants, depending on income guidelines, are eligible to receive between $120 and $975. The average award is $500.
Clouthier said his office has received approximately 10,000 requests for assistance this year. Last year, the program helped 15,902 households in the two counties.
But Clouthier said requests have been down by about 300 to 400 this fall. He doesn’t blame the shutdown.
“I attribute it to the type of weather we’ve been having this fall,” he said.
Plenty of warm fall days have prompted people to hold off on seeking assistance, he said. Yesterday, the temperature in Southern New Hampshire topped 60 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
Clouthier said applications trickled in until about two weeks ago, which is when temperatures began to drop into the 20s and 30s at night — often leaving a layer of frost on the ground.
“We have definitely started to see in an increase in the past couple of weeks,” he said.
To apply for assistance, call 1-855-295-4105 in the Derry area and 1-800-939-9172 in the Salem area.
Volunteer-run programs such as Warm Homes in Londonderry are also doing their part to help keep the needy warm.
Warm Homes co-founder Kathy Wagner said yesterday her program is just starting to accept applications for emergency fuel aid. Residents in dire need receive a onetime, free shipment of oil. To seek assistance, call 232-9131.
The program, funded entirely through donations, provides an average of $15,000 to $18,000 in oil to 40 to 60 families a year, she said.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration, which recently released its Winter Fuels Outlook report, projects that households will spend more this winter to heat their homes with natural gas, propane and electricity. Meanwhile, home heating oil prices are expected to decrease.