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Thousands of Utahns who receive federal help to pay their heating bills will be getting a lot less money as of Wednesday, as state officials anticipate cuts in federal social services spending.

Low-income state residents who receive assistance from the Home Energy Assistance Target, or HEAT, will see their benefit drop from an average of $510 to an average of $360 per household.

Utah Division of Housing and Community Development Director Gordon Walker said Tuesday the move was necessary in the face of certain federal budget cuts — even though Congress has yet to pass a new budget — and the increasing number of households applying for the heat and electric bill assistance.

"We think this is a very prudent decision and that if we take action now, we can serve more families," Walker said. "We know the funds will be decreased."

More than 50,000 Utah households received HEAT benefits in 2010. HEAT is Utah's version of the federal LIHEAP program (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) which distributes money to states to help low-income residents pay their utility bills.

Walker said that his agency has seen a 5 percent increase in the number of applications already this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Rather than limit the number of households that receive assistance, the agency decided to lower the benefit amount. Utah can count on at least $2.4 million less for the program, he said.

Salt Lake City Community Action Program, one of the state's HEAT administrators, was informed of the decision late last week, said Sheila Walsh-McDonald, the nonprofit organization's low-income advocate for health care and tax policy.

Walsh-McDonald said she didn't see why benefits had to be cut in advance of a final federal budget. "This does seem premature," she said.

Tim Funk, a spokesman for Crossroads Urban Center in Salt Lake City, said be believes Congress is setting up LIHEAP and other safety-net programs for cuts in the 60 percent range, even though such action wouldn't scratch the federal deficit, politicians' supposed target. "It's entirely symbolic," he said.

Walker said the state has been allocating funds to HEAT based on the assumption that federal contingency funds would be released as usual. That assumption changed after President Barack Obama said he wouldn't release contingency funds.

Funk noted that Rocky Mountain Power is seeking a rate increase and the Legislature is considering a bill that would more than double the current sales tax on food — two proposals that would further pressure poor people.

"The fact that the national [LIHEAP] program is being cut, and the state in turn says it has to respond to that, is really ominous to people who need this program," Funk said. "Things are worse than they have been in 75 years. ... If you cut [the program] by 40 percent, that puts an awful lot of people in even deeper trouble than they're already in." —

Learn more about HEAT

To qualify for HEAT assistance in paying electric and gas bills, a family must earn below 150 percent of the federal poverty level: about $33,000 for a family of four. Priority for HEAT assistance is given to households with the highest energy burden in relationship to household income, while taking into consideration vulnerable populations such as the elderly, disabled and families with young children.

Utahns can visit to find their county's contact information, or call 2-1-1.