Lawmakers drop (snow)ball on home heating assistance
Now, state officials and the people who staff assistance agencies and charities are wondering what the cold season will mean for those residents who can't pay their heating bills -- tens of thousands of state residents.
At issue is Michigan's Low Income and Energy Efficiency Fund, money utility companies pay to help customers who can't pay for heat -- a fund which all of us as ratepayers fuel as part of our bills.
Money for the state program, which has been operating since 2002, was built into the rate base used by Detroit Edison and Consumers Energy Co., Michigan's two largest utilities. But the appeals court this year ruled that lawmakers failed to authorize the fee when they rewrote state energy laws several years ago. The court in July struck down the financing system and the state Legislature has not enacted a new one.
The case got to court when a group called Association of Businesses Advocating Tariff Equity, claimed only residential ratepayers should be assessed for the cost of the aid since industrial and commercial users get no benefit from the fund.
We find that argument cynical. Most of us as ratepayers, residential or otherwise, do not and will not benefit from the fund either.
The local Petoskey Salvation Army office pairs up clients with heating assistance funds and supplements heating programs with money from the community and its own budget.
"We have seen an increase in need but we have been able to meet those needs," said Petoskey Salvation Army Major Matt Grindle. "We may face a late winter or early spring combination of challenges -- when the economy isn't better, we still see a lot of people out of work and there is a reduction of funds available. It may be much more difficult to meet the needs as we have in the past."
Complicating the issue is what agencies can pay for what types of fuel -- and how much they can pay.
In Antrim, Emmet and Charlevoix counties, Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency assisted 397 households with deliverable fuels only (propane, wood, fuel oil) in 2010-2011 using $242,000 in federal funds, restricted to those types of fuels. Agency community services coordinator Val Stone said that the state funds in question can be used also for natural gas and electricity, and another 91 households, using $27,000, were helped.
That $27,000 won't be around now this year because the Legislature hasn't acted. In the agency's full 10-county area, hundreds more are affected.
"It's going to affect things very badly," Stone said. "We are extremely concerned ..."
The situation may not be dire, yet. Federal funds became available Oct. 1 and a state law limits utilities' ability to cut off service for nonpayment between Nov. 1-March 30. What happens April 1, when the winter is still locked in up here in Northern Michigan, remains to be seen.
We can't help think that the Legislature dropped the ball on reauthorizing the heating assistance program, perhaps because its attention is focused elsewhere. It is obsessed with lubricating Michigan's business climate and cutting government costs. One new law requires all public employee to pay a minimum of 20 percent of their health insurance premiums out of pocket. There is anti-labor "right to work" legislation; bills which would strip Michigan drivers of accident benefits; and the elimination of the personal property tax on business which would destroy some local governments' budgets.
And in the meantime, your struggling friends and neighbors may go without heat.
So, light a fire under your legislators, and make sure this important source of help for those less fortunate than you or your state representative and senator doesn't melt away with the spring thaw. Remind them there are other things to do than cut taxes and bust unions.