About 70,000 North Carolina families could get help paying their heating cost this winter.
The state is partnering with utility companies to create a $10 million fund that will help low-income residents make their homes more energy-efficient and help pay utility bills.
Gov. Mike Easley announced the fund on Wednesday, saying that the state will contribute $6.5 million, while the balance will come from Progress Energy, Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, PSNC, Electricities and N.C. Power.
"Beginning tomorrow, it's expected to get cool and stay cool through the holidays," said Easley. Natural gas prices have increased more than 50 percent over last year, while propane and oil prices are up more than 30 percent. Easley said the higher energy costs are expected to boost housing utility bills by $300 to $4800 over the course of the heating season.
This help "will make a big dent in some people's situations," he said.
The money will help make up for a cut in federal heating assistance. State officials said they expect federal assistance to decrease from $16 million to $9 million this winter.
So far, it's unclear exactly where the state funds will come from.
"We're in the process of identifying that money in our budget," said Jim Jones, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Human Services. "We're looking for those funds. We intend to find them."
Under the plan, $3.1 million will be used to help weatherize homes by adding insulation or caulking leaks.
"At some homes we may spend $3,000; at others we may spend $1,000, depending on the need," said Lawrence Wilson, director of N.C. Health and Human Service's office of economic opportunity, which will oversee the weatherization program.
Families will receive a maximum of $300 to help pay their bills, said Pheon Beal, the director of the N.C. Division of Social Services.
To qualify for either program, your income must be at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Those ranges vary depending on family size. For example, a family of four could earn no more than $29,025, Wilson said. But income alone might not be enough to get you aid. Priority will be given to the elderly, disabled and families with children.
"This sure helps the very low-income families," said Robert Gruber, the executive director of the N.C. Utilities Commission Public Staff, which represents utility customers.
Gruber said that natural gas users -- which includes about 25 percent of homeowners in the state -- will likely fare the worst this winter, because local suppliers have raised their prices an average of 50 percent. He said that Progress Energy and Duke Power customers face a 4 percent and 1 percent increase, respectively.
Most local utilities plan to increase the amount of money they contribute toward helping poor families pay heating bills.
PSNC plans to donate $290,000, plus $20,000 more to match contributions from customers and the general public, said spokeswoman Angie Townsend. She said the total donation last year was $35,000.
Duke Power plans to increase its contribution to its Share the Warmth program by $700,000, bringing the total donation this year to $2.1 million. And Progress Energy said it's pledging $1 million to the N.C. Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program. Last year, its fund was about $670,000, said spokesman Mike Hughes.
The utility companies want customers to call them as soon as they know they will have trouble paying, not when their power is about to be disconnected.
"If they call us, we might be able to defer the payment or make short-term arrangement," Townsend said.
Staff writer Vicki Lee Parker can be reached at 829-4898 or firstname.lastname@example.org.