Preachers advised of LIHEAP

Friday, February 20, 2009

Nearly 40 preachers and church laymen were advised on Tuesday night how to help their parishioners get help if they're struggling to pay power bills.

While it could be as simple as calling the South Central Human Resources Agency office on Old Columbia Highway, the reality of human nature was recognized as the preachers meeting started in the Lewisburg Gas Department's community room.

"People always need help," Accounts Representative Craig Blackwell said. "The first place they go is the church."

Personally advising the religious leaders was the chief reason for the meeting requested by the Ministerial Association.

However, discussion included announcements and praise as the community faces hard times, nasty weather and increasing costs when one factory closure has been announced and work schedules have been reduced.

Marshall County commissioners are poised ready to double their appropriation of county reserves to match a state and federal program that will triple contributions to help defray qualified residents' energy bills.

Last month, the Commission appropriated $4,000 to leverage $8,000 in Congressionally-approved Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) money. On Tuesday, the commission will be asked to authorize another $4,000.

It's part of a two-pronged effort under LIHEAP, according to Cathy Hayes, community Services Program Director who works at the South Central Human Resources Agency headquarters in Fayetteville.

"Now," Hayes said, "we need to reach out to the people who are eligible... especially the elderly and those on fixed incomes."

Too many of the elderly people in the 13 counties Hayes' agency serves "wouldn't dream of coming in," she said, explaining it's not a part of their work ethic, or independence.

However, help is available and, she aid, "I need for you to get the word out."

Such residents "probably wouldn't tell me" of their hardships, she said, knowing from experience some people cut back on food and medicine to pay other bills.

"But they will tell you," Hayes explained to the preachers. "And you can determine whether they're eligible."

It's likely that all of them are, she said, citing an exception of GM workers who moved here from the north and are living on a pension.

Tennessee forwarded $324,000 in federal money to her agency to help residents in 13 counties. Some of the money has been separated into the matching program and if it's not used, it would be returned.

"Some of the counties have not been as forthcoming as Marshall County," Hayes said. "Some of the counties have horrible unemployment rates and it has been hard to raise the matching funds."

If Marshall County raises more than its estimated matching share - seen as some $10,364 - and some other counties don't use the system, then more matching money would be available here, she explained.

The county commissioners appropriation of $4,000 follows a $2,500 allocation from five Lewisburg council members. In addition, Lewisburg Electric Service appropriate more than $3,000 in December and decided to provide $3,000 a month during four months to leverage funds for city residents having trouble with electric bills.

"I just have to praise you," Hayes said. "Marshall County and Lewisburg are the only ones who came forward."

The total of those three sources, plus money that may come from other donations will clearly exceed the $10,364.

LIHEAP can provide a one-time lump-sum payment a power utility or for other home fuels of between $300 to $450, Hayes said. The amount depends on the customer's financial circumstances, the number of people in the household, their age and health.

Qualification for the program could be with a bank statement showing direct deposit, or an unemployment check stub. If groceries are bought with food stamps by residents of a household, then that home will probably qualify for LIHEAP.

"In the 13 counties we serve," Hayes said, "three quarters to 80 percent of the people we serve are way-below" the income level to qualify for LIHEAP.