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Vermont's fuel aid program in high gear

Vermont, November 26, 2013 A client’s call made Richard Moffi’s day.

The man on the line reported that a fuel truck had just departed from his home after filling his near empty tank — one business day after he had applied for aid under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance program.

Moffi, chief of the state’s fuel assistance program, is proud of the routinely fast turn-around of applications, especially this week as Vermonters began getting a taste of winter.

“Benefits go out the door at the end of every business day,” Moffi said.

Already, his office has provided $17.5 million in fuel aid to 23,400 Vermont households. He expects the program will serve about 28,000 by the time winter ends.

Grants, which are transferred online to fuel dealers’ bank accounts, will average about $800 per household, down $100 from last year. Moffi said the grants will cover about a third of the average household fuel expense for the winter.

State data shows LIHEAP beneficiaries are using less fuel than in the past. Many have benefited from weatherization improvements. The state’s weatherization program is targeting homes receiving fuel assistance.

The decrease in grant size is the result of shrinking federal funding. The state expects a federal appropriation of about $16.9 million, down about $3 million from last year’s allocation. In total, last year’s program had a $29.6 million in federal and state dollars. This year the total is expected to be $25.7 million, including an $8.1 million contribution from state funds.

To stretch the smaller pot of government dollars available for fuel assistance, the state required heating oil and propane dealers to offer LIHEAP bigger discounts and instituted a new discount program with Vermont Gas Systems.

“Everybody has been asked to do more,” Moffi said, defending the state’s beefed-up discounting requirements.

Beginning in 2008, oil, kerosene and propane dealers were required to reduce their prices for LIHEAP-purchased fuel by five cents. For the past two hearing seasons, the state required a dime per gallon or the “dealer discount,” whichever was larger, Moffi said.

This year, dealers have two different options which generate bigger savings on the fuel that government dollars buy for clients. Either the dealers provide fuel at 15 cents per gallon less than the price they charge customers who pay cash or they provide it at 50 cents over the average wholesale cost of fuel sold at four New England terminals.

Details about the new requirements came out in mid-October, which miffed dealers, said Matt Cota, executive director of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association. They had just two weeks to decide whether or not to contract with the state.

“That caused a lot of stress,” Cota said. Ultimately about 95 of the 120 independent dealers that deliver in Vermont signed contracts, down from 105 last year. Cota and the state have slightly different figures for participating dealers because of different counting methodologies, but both agree that the overwhelming majority participate.

For most dealers, LIHEAP customers make up about 5 percent of their total clientele.

Michael Sirotkin, a lawyer who lobbies on behalf of the Council of Vermont Elders, called the new discounts welcome, but modest.

“Seniors have really been asking the administration and Legislature to get better prices,” Sirotkin said. “This is a start to making these benefits go farther.”

Advocates for elderly and low-income Vermonters would like to see fuel assistance cover much more of the cost of a season’s worth of heat, Sirotkin said. “The goal,” he said, “has been to get to 60 percent.”

Click here to read the full story from the Burlington Press

National Oilheat Research Alliance ECC is funded in part through the National Oilheat Research Alliance.