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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Denver Rocky Mountain News



Energy Outreach Colorado is the only nonprofit agency in Colorado that raises money and then distributes it exclusively to help low-income families, disabled people and seniors with their utility bills.

The year-round EOC program is run through a network of 90 nonprofit agencies across the state that distribute the funds. Families can get assistance by dialing the toll free number 1-866-HEAT-HELP. That number will direct them to an agency in their area that may be able to help them.

Skip Arnold, EOC's executive director, spoke with the Rocky Mountain News recently on Colorado's need for energy assistance as we approach the peak winter months.

On EOC's contributions to help low-income families last winter:

Last year, we distributed $6.15 million through direct assistance to low-income households that helped pay their bills. Of that, we contributed $3.15 million to the state low income heating and energy assistance program (LEAP), and about 105,000 families were helped.

We also funded $600,000 to help upgrade low-income housing through weatherization and energy-efficiency improvements. Those programs are aimed for new construction and are distributed through Habitat for Humanity, Mercy Housing and others. What we do is install energy-efficient appliances in the house as a long-term solution to reduce utility bills.

This year, we are seeing a $1.5 million shortfall in our budget. We have a $20 million snowy day fund that we can tap into during a crisis, and this winter certainly qualifies as one.

On the enormous need for energy assistance funds to help low-income families this winter:

Since January 2003, we have seen the cost of heating homes more than triple. Even three years ago, it was unaffordable for low-income families and seniors to pay their bills. This winter, the cost of heating homes will go up another 40 to 50 percent over last winter. That will put enormous strain on low-income households as they pay these high energy prices. This winter will be catastrophic for many low-income families.

Colorado will need an additional $15 million to $20 million in heating assistance funds just to accommodate the difference in energy bills this year compared to last year, even if we were to help the same number of families.

On the current funding level of the federal Low-Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program. (LEAP is the primary source of funds to help Colorado's needy families with heating bills):

As of today, the federal House of Representatives and Senate haven't arrived at a consensus number regarding the LEAP program. In the Senate version of the bill, LEAP funding is more or less flat from last year.

The House version is about a 5 percent reduction in funding. Typically, both the House and Senate conference and come up with another number, but in any case we are looking at flat or reduced funding. In past years, Colorado has received slightly less than $30 million in LEAP funding per year.

On the possibility of raising additional funds from other sources to augment the state's LEAP funds:

There's a proposal to increase LEAP funding by an additional $3.1 billion, but that bill hasn't gone through either the federal House or Senate. There has been no vote on it. If that is approved, Colorado stands to receive about $15 million. I am watching it closely, but nothing has happened yet.

In the past three or four years, the governor's office and the state legislature have transferred about $10 million each year to augment the federal LEAP program in the state and increase the average benefit to needy families. But those have been ad hoc measures, and no permanent funding stream has ben established.

We think it is important to establish some sort of severance tax transfer to the Energy Outreach Colorado program on a permanent basis.

(In 2004, the state earned $115.8 million in severance taxes, up 250 percent from 2003's $32.4 million. Severance taxes are state taxes that are collected on the production of oil, gas, coal and certain minerals. According to Colorado law, 50 percent of the severance tax revenue flows to local governments and 50 percent flows into a state trust fund to replace depleted natural resources and to complete water projects.)

As the price of natural gas goes up and down, the need of low-income families varies as well. We'd like to see some sort of benchmark if you will. If the price of natural gas drops below a certain point, the transfer would not take place. But as the price goes up, the transfer would take place on an increasing level. We'd be very interested in legislation that takes care of that.

On the main donors of Energy Outreach Colorado:

We raise funds from a variety of sources. We raised $1.3 million from individual donors. Xcel Energy has announced a $2 million donation, and it will match donations its customers make up to an additional $1 million. I'd definitely like to highlight that other utilities such as Aquila, Kinder Morgan and at least 10 rural electric cooperatives have made significant contributions.

We raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from oil and gas producers. The industry has taken this as a major issue, and they are very concerned about the impact of high natural gas prices on consumers.

Copyright © 2005, Denver Publishing Co.

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