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Heat Out Of Reach For Many

Needy Have Choice: Fuel Or Other Needs?

December 1, 2006
By STEVEN GOODE, Courant Staff Writer

Low-income families in Connecticut continue to struggle to bridge the gap between what they can afford to pay for heating fuel and electricity and the actual costs.

And according to a report released Thursday the forecast is a chilly one, prompting Patricia Wrice, executive director of Operation Fuel, to call for help from the legislature.

"The cold winter is not far off," Wrice said Thursday at the state Capitol, where the nonprofit agency kicked off its 30th season of providing financial assistance to families that are not eligible for help from state funded programs.

The event also provided Wrice an opportunity to discuss details of the agency's Home Energy Affordability Gap report for Connecticut in 2006.

The report breaks down the difference between actual energy costs and what low-income households in the state can reasonably afford. And the gap is widening.

Wrice said that the affordability gap statewide in 2006 was $255 million, which averaged $1,100 per household, leaving many families with difficult choices. Money that could have been spent on food, clothing or health care went instead to cover heat and electricity bills, she said.

"It's moved into middle-class families," she said, "and the state does not have the resources to bridge the gap."

According to the report, prepared by Roger Colton of Massachusetts-based Fisher, Sheehan & Colton Public Finance and General Economics, much of the increasing affordability gap in Connecticut can be attributed to significant increases in electricity and heating fuels. From January 2002 - when the gap stood at $877 - to January 2006, natural gas prices in Connecticut increased by 94 percent and heating oil prices increased by almost 125 percent, the report said.

A 38 percent increase in residential electricity rates requested by United Illuminating Co. last week won't slow the trend either, Colton said, adding that an electricity rate increase of even 20 percent would result in a 15 percent increase in the affordability gap.

"Electrical increases are much more significant for Connecticut," Colton said.

"It's a nationwide issue, but New England seems to have a bigger gap because of high electricity prices."

Colton's report also suggests that the burden of helping low-income families keep up with rising costs will fall on private agencies such as Operation Fuel. The Bloomfield-based organization distributed about $850,000 in emergency fuel assistance to low-income residents last year and raises funds through programs such as its "add a dollar" campaign that accompanies utility bills.

But Wrice said participation in the program, which was initiated in 1983 and brought in about $400,000 last year, has become stagnant as more people pay their utility bills through the Internet.

To boost donations, Wrice plans to lobby legislators to allow larger donations and seek funding for a large-scale education campaign.

The organization also recently created a new position of director of community programs and hired Erin Clark to head implementation of its public policy and advocacy initiative.

Wrice said the plight of families struggling to keep up with fuel costs and the ever-increasing need for assistance needs to be a legislative priority.

"There needs to be a sense of urgency, a call to action," she said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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