HELENA — Leaders say, since the coronavirus outbreak, they are seeing more demand across Montana for a program aimed at helping people pay their winter energy bills.
Jonathan Ballew, energy programs director for Rocky Mountain Development Council, said energy bills are already a burden for many people in Montana.
“For the low-income population that we serve, a significant amount of their income goes toward paying their heating bills – and of course we live in a cold climate,” he said.
Rocky administers the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program, or LIEAP, in Lewis and Clark, Broadwater and Jefferson Counties.
Ballew said they usually serve about 2,000 households, covering partial costs on their energy bills and helping them if their heating systems need emergency repairs. He said the business and school closures and other changes linked to COVID-19 have only increased the need.
“A lot of the layoffs that we’ve been seeing are in service industries and gig industry folks, and they really need help right now,” Ballew said.
Rocky and other organizations called “Human Resource Development Councils,” or HRDCs, provide LIEAP and other assistance programs across Montana. State leaders say a number of those organizations are reporting more people asking about these programs.
“They are seeing a definite increase in the number of calls and requests for assistance, many of them being energy-related,” said Sara Loewen, intergovernmental human services bureau chief for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Loewen said, statewide, they usually have a total of almost 20,000 LIEAP participants. This year, the number had been lower than normal, which Loewen attributed to a relatively mild winter.
“Given the circumstances that we’re now in, we fully anticipate that we’ll see an increase in applications through this next month,” she said.
The CARES Act – the large federal assistance package Congress passed last week – includes increased funding for energy assistance programs. DPHHS leaders are working on how that aid will be distributed in Montana.
LIEAP is open to households that meet income requirements – for example, $25,248 a year for one person or $48,554 for a family of four. Those who receive SNAP benefits or other forms of assistance may qualify automatically.
Typically, people who qualify and sign up for LIEAP can receive credits on their energy bills from October through April. Loewen said DPHHS plans to extend that this year, so that recipients will also get help on bills into the summer. However, people must turn in their applications for LIEAP by the end of April.
Rocky is one of several HRDCs that currently have their offices closed to the public as a precaution against coronavirus. Anyone applying for the program can submit their documentation by mail or by using a drop slot at the office.
You can find more information about LIEAP, including eligibility requirements, a list of local providers and a link to the application, on the DPHHS website.
DPHHS also plans to create a new emergency energy benefit, specifically for people impacted by COVID-19. More details about that program will be released later this month.
In addition to LIEAP, providers also have programs to help people weatherize their homes and reduce energy use. However, those projects are currently on hold because of the coronavirus.
HRDCs also provide a variety of other services beyond energy assistance, and the CARES Act increases funding for those programs as well. Ballew encouraged anyone who is experiencing challenges because of the COVID-19 outbreak to contact Rocky and find out whether they can help.