Energy assistance available through Danielson Fuel Fund

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Regional - posted Mon., Aug. 12, 2013
(L to r) Barbara Schreier, Patricia Wrice and Earl McWilliams discuss a new energy assistance program. Photo by D. Coffey.
(L to r) Barbara Schreier, Patricia Wrice and Earl McWilliams discuss a new energy assistance program. Photo by D. Coffey.

Operation Fuel Executive Director Patricia Wrice visited the offices of the United Methodist Church of Danielson on Aug. 6. Her visit was meant to highlight a new limited emergency energy assistance program. For utility customers experiencing extreme financial difficulties who are in danger of losing or have lost their service, one-time grants up to $500 are available.

UMCD Deacon Barbara Schreier and Deacon Earl McWilliams, from the Federated Church of Christ in Brooklyn, met with her. Schreier and McWilliams help manage the Danielson Fuel Fund that services eligible residents in Plainfield, Sterling, Killingly and Brooklyn. It's one of 100 sites in the state that partner with Operation Fuel to provide energy assistance.

As if to highlight the case for the emergency assistance, a woman came asking for help with her electric bill. Her power had been shut off because she owed more than $900. “She thought they couldn't shut off the electricity because she had a newborn,” Schreier said. “But that's a law in Massachusetts, not Connecticut.”

Schreier picked up the phone and called other churches in an interfaith council. Within a half hour, she was able to cobble together enough money to meet nearly $800 of the bill. Then she convinced a utility manager to approve resumption of service. “Hopefully you can have power tomorrow,” she told the woman.

Operation Fuel began in 1977 to deal with the country's oil crisis. It's one of the oldest fuel assistance programs in the country. Then-governor Ella Grasso approached the religious and business communities to form partnerships in order to respond quickly to needs of the working poor. Wrice has been with OF for 17 years. She remembers a time when it used to take $250 to fill an oil tank. Today $500 is the maximum one-time grant allowed, and it doesn't come close to filling a standard tank.

With volatile prices and minimum order requirements, it's hard for many Connecticut residents to keep up with costs. After a winter that was colder than average and a summer that's been hotter than usual, many are also having a hard time catching up on their bills. “It used to be that people would use the summer to catch up,” Wrice said. “But they can't keep up. People are doing without food or medicine. They're splitting pills in half.”

A moratorium that runs from Nov. 1 to May 1 keeps utility companies from turning off power for an overdue bill. As that November deadline approaches, utility companies get more aggressive with collection efforts, according to Wrice.

What Wrice, McWilliams and Schreier would like to see is an affordable rate with a forgiveness component for those poor struggling to pay energy bills. “Rhode Island spent seven years developing a consumer-friendly approach to payments and shut-offs,” said McWilliams. Residents are asked to make a 10-percent payment and are given three years to pay 40 percent of the bill. Fifty percent of the bill is forgiven. “Connecticut is the only New England state without a forgiveness policy,” McWilliams said.

And Connecticut has one of the biggest home energy affordability gaps in the country. That gap measures the difference between affordable energy costs and actual energy costs. The “affordable burden” of home energy costs is set at 6 percent of gross household income. For a single mother working 30 hours at $8 an hour, that affordable energy bill would be $57.60 a month.

According to Wrice, Connecticut's affordability gap is about $500 million. Operation Fuel's budget of $3.3 million doesn't come close to addressing it, she said. “The problem is systemic,” Wrice said. “Individuals can't control prices or the weather.”

Last winter, DFF provided $100,000 in fuel to more than 200 households. The maximum grant allowance of $500 was typically given, according to McWilliams. They were also able to provide more than $10,000 in private fuel funds to 35 households and more than 100 individuals. Those private funds are crucial to help people who do not meet strict state and federal guidelines for fuel assistance.

DFF holds two events a year to raise money for the fund. A Sound of Music event is being held in late August at the Little Theatre on Broad Street. Money raised will be used to provide emergency fuel assistance to residents of Brooklyn, Killingly, Plainfield and Sterling.

The Operation Fuel emergency assistance program began Aug. 1 and will end Oct. 31, or when funds run out. Households aren’t eligible for this program if they received a grant for utility assistance from Operation Fuel during the 2012-2013 winter program. For more information on the summer program, call 211.

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