Thousands of low-income Utahns who receive federal help paying their heating bills, already hit with a funding cut in March, look likely to see another reduction in their annual household benefit.
Looming federal budget cuts prompted state officials in March to cut the benefit from an average of $510 to an average $360 per household. This fiscal year in Utah, which began Oct. 1, the average annual benefit will drop to around $320, said Sheila Walsh-McDonald, Salt Lake Community Action Program's low-income advocate for health care and tax policy.
Once again, the agencies that manage Utah's version of the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, will spread less money around to ever more applicants.
Last week, the federal Omnibus Bill cleared the Senate; Congress allocated $900 million more to LIHEAP than President Barack Obama proposed in his budget. Still, LIHEAP, called HEAT in Utah, saw a $1.1 billion reduction over last year's federal budget a 23 percent drop.
HEAT, administered through the Utah Division of Housing and Community Development, is funded completely with federal dollars through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The program helps pay winter utility bills for the lowest-income households with the highest heating costs. People served include the disabled, elderly and families with preschool-age children.
This past year, HEAT assisted more than 46,000 Utah households, 19,000 of them in Salt Lake and Tooele counties, said Walsh-McDonald.
This year, she said, the number of households that receive the funds might have to be cut so those who need it most will receive assistance.
That was the thinking that propelled Housing and Community Development Director Gordon Walker to make cuts in March. "We know the funds will be decreased," he said at the time.