/Utility companies Mississippi shortchanged on federal energy assistance funds for low income homes

Utility companies Mississippi shortchanged on federal energy assistance funds for low income homes

Hartfield stated that she was faced with a disconnection within three weeks. Hartfield must keep utilities running at her south Jackson townhouse as part of her rental agreement. Hartfield could be evicted if she loses power. After overcoming some administrative hurdles, she was able to get help from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a federal program that provides funds for qualified residents. In late 2017, the program paid her Entergy bill. She said that if she hadn’t received the help, I would not be living in my home right now. “It was even more stressful because I had gone from paying my share of the bills while married to it, and I wasn’t prepared financially,” she said. Right now, only 12 percent of Mississippians are eligible for the federal $3.7 billion program. This is those whose household incomes are below 60 percent. The state receives $32.2million in LIHEAP. This program is administered by local community action agencies. According to a LIHEAP factsheet, the funds only helped 41,243 of the 377,597 state-eligible families in 2017. Half of New York’s residents are eligible for the assistance. This discrepancy can also be explained by the way Congress determines how much money each state should receive. It favors colder states over warmer, Southern states. Because the program is not an entitlement the federal dollars are given to states in blocks. Qualified residents must apply for the funds. It is possible that the program doesn’t reach all eligible because of the lengthy application process. Hartfield stated that she was frustrated by the inflexible application process. “It seemed like they didn’t have any appointments until three months later.” Hartfield is a student at Hinds Community College where she takes prerequisite courses to a nursing degree. Hartfield met a liaison at Hinds Community College, who was able advocate for her and set up an appointment for her four days later. It’s not common for people to get this far. David Knight, executive vice President of the Hinds County Human Resource Agency (the community action agency in Jackson), stated that appointments fill up quickly and they are filled up fast. “We are at maximum capacity right now. Hinds County has 20,000 homes that are eligible. “If everyone called today, who’s going take those phone calls?” Mississippi simplified the application process in 2018 so applicants didn’t need to provide as much documentation such as a birth cert to prove their eligibility. The funds ran out halfway through the year, as local agencies began to approve more applicants for assistance faster. Knight stated that they will run out of funds this year by the end of fall. Knight stated that “when we run out there is no way to call anyone else.” “The churches, there’s always dried up… Every little penny, you or I, may not seem like a big deal, but it’s hard for somebody who’s counting pennies. In 2018, Entergy disconnected service from about 13% of its customers because of nonpayment. However, the company doesn’t track how many are low-income and would qualify for LIHEAP. Knight stated that the company is talking about hot water to allow customers to shower and then go to work. 72 percent of those who lose service pay and are reconnected. This comes with a $50 charge. Customers might also be required to pay an additional deposit of two times their highest bill. Through an agreement with Mississippi Department of Human Services, Entergy might waive these fees for customers of low income. Because LIHEAP dollars are limited, the community action agencies maintain an emergency fund to help people in life-threatening situations. For example, a person suffering from a medical condition who requires electricity to power an oxygen tank. Congress doesn’t allocate enough money to the program to provide assistance to all residents. However, it prioritizes states such as Mississippi in deciding how much money each state should receive. Entergy’s corporate responsibility manager Liz Brister explained that the program was originally designed to heat homes and protect families from freezing temperatures. It initially preferred cold-weather states. Congress eventually increased funding for the program. It specified that states would receive any LIHEAP funding exceeding $2 billion based on a newer formula. This puts more emphasis on poverty rates, energy burden (the percentage of a household’s income that is used on utilities) than the temperature. Utilities companies claim that Congress isn’t following its own formula. Brister stated that instead of funds flowing as they should, Congress has written an earmark in the bill saying, “Oh, let’s pretend these extra funds were just like they were before the trigger.” “And so they’re reappropriating those funds to the cold weather state instead of letting them flow into Mississippi as they should.” Mississippi Today did not respond to requests for comment from Brister. Although Mississippi received a $2.5million or 8 percent LIHEAP boost from 2017-2018, the state’s program was previously cut by one third since 2010. It was at its highest funding level in 2010. Entergy, a company that serves four states in the southeastern region, and Atmos Energy (a gas company that serves nine states mostly in South), have been lobbying for years for more money to support hotter states where the poverty rate is high. The funding gap has received little attention. Atmos Energy’s manager of customer advocacy Dan Alderson said, “We need to educate and reeducate” about the lifesaving program. Alderson stated that utility bills can consume anywhere from 12 percent to 40 percent of a household’s monthly income. He said that customers with higher incomes may only spend three to five percent of their income for energy. LIHEAP is a benefit to both energy companies as well as all customers. Atmos may have to write off any gas delivered to a house by it if it isn’t paid for the month. When it disconnects service from a home, the company may also have to incur costs. Atmos may use those unpaid bills to justify raising its rates next time it approaches the Mississippi Public Service Commission. Alderson stated that the program only takes a small amount and can keep the customer healthy, safe, and able to keep their meter running. “Then the gas they used, which they then got paid through the program,” Alderson said. Hartfield is still eligible for the program. She’s still working as a $11.29 an hour hospital receptionist and she tried to apply for LIHEAP this week. Hartfield said that the automated phone system used by the local office keeps dropping her calls. Hartfield does not have to worry about losing electricity, but she said that if she could get assistance, “I know I could get my children school supplies and send them home with something decent to wear.”