Emergency help for heat is growing

Friday, January 23, 2009

More local money should be made available to leverage even more federal money to help pay heating bills for Marshall County residents who qualify for the program, according to a recommendation from the County Budget Committee.

All Marshall County commissioners are scheduled on Monday night to consider appropriating $4,000 from reserve funds to match money from Congress through state agencies to pay heating bills through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

LIHEAP is administered by the South Central Human Resources Agency which has offices on Old Columbia Pike across from the Marshall County Highway Department. Households eligible for the program typically include people who are buying groceries with Food Stamps.

The unanimous recommendation from the Budget Committee on Wednesday night follows a decision by Lewisburg Councilmen Robin Minor, Phil Sanders, Odie Whitehead and Hershel Davis who joined Councilwoman Quinn Brandon who'd already been donating some of her discretionary funds to charities. Other councilmen, notably Minor, are donating to the Care Kitchen that provides free meals on Thursday nights in Lewisburg.

Last fall, Congress increased funding for LIHEAP, knowing this winter would be colder than normal. Gov. Phil Bredesen announced last month that Tennessee received $80 million through the Department of Human Services which included a separate fund to match $2 for every $1 donated locally. Up to $20,728 in federal money can be obtained for Marshall County residents with local contributions of $10,364.

LIHEAP money has been available for years, but recently there was a chance Marshall County might not have taken advantage of the program, according to Craig Blackwell, spokesman for the Lewisburg Gas Department. Without local response to previous efforts, federal officials conclude there's no need and that was the image projected last year.

There is a separate fund which was continuing, according to Cathy Hayes, community services program director for the South Central Human Resources Agency office in Fayetteville. That other fund has $127,700, Hayes said.

"We're spending that money now," she said of her agency's response to applications. "We're processing October payments now."

The matching program is for emergency payments, she said.

"I'm trying to raise this local match," Hayes said. "I know all the counties are in dire financial straights."

Applicants for help in the Human Resources Agency's service area include a Lincoln County woman who had a $530 electric bill, Hayes said. The woman's monthly income was about $505.

Marshal County residents need all the help they can get, Blackwell said.

Commissioner Jimmy Stitt, a member of the county's Economic and Community Development and Tourism Committee, was at the Budget committee meeting and offered another source of money to match LIHEAP.

The ECD-Tourism Committee controls spending of revenue from the hotel-motel room rent tax, Stitt explained. He suggested that helping pay utility bills could be seen as community development and a worthy use of some of the $60,000 left in the committee's account.

"I appreciate Jimmy saying that," County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett said, turning to the Budget Committee, "but the bills are coming in."

Commissioner Don Ledford asked if the mayor was suggesting the county proceed with contributions in stages and Hayes replied, "I will take the money from now until June" when the matching program ends.

A condition placed on the Lewisburg Council members' contributions was discussed. Those five city-elected officials said they wanted their contributions to help residents of the city, because that's their constituency.

"Churches can designate a member" of that congregation for specific assistance to focus contributions intended for the $2 for $1 match, Hayes said.

Blackwell added, "Churches are getting hit hard. With layoffs, they're beginning to feel it in their congregations."

Lewisburg Gas is giving its customers "extra time" to make arrangements for payments, the utility spokesman said, noting "a lot of single moms" are having trouble with bills now.

Retired Rev. Leland Carden reported a congregation may have had $30,000 to $45,000 a year for "benevolences," but that economic conditions have affected that service.

One congregation "ran out," after having spent some two thirds on utilities for parishioners, he said.

Hayes said, "Eighty percent of the people we're seeing now are those who we've never seen before."

After additional discussion, Commissioner Jimmy Wolaver moved to appropriate $4,000 for the matching fund. The committee unanimously voted for the resolution.

That $4,000, if approved Monday will join $2,500 from the city, thereby making $6,500 of the $10,364 needed, if all of the matching fund is obtained.

The $6,500 will make $19,500 available with the federal match, although about a third of it will be for applicants who live in Lewisburg.

County Commissioners meet at 6 p.m. in the Courthouse Annex on the Lewisburg public square.