Where’s HEAP when they need it?

Unfunded energy-assistance program leaves locals in limbo

Cherie Appel, a Chico resident, has relied in part on the county’s Home Energy Assistance Program for several years to pay her bills.

Cherie Appel, a Chico resident, has relied in part on the county’s Home Energy Assistance Program for several years to pay her bills.

Photo By Stacey kennelly

Chico resident Cherie Appel pays close attention to her bills. She doesn’t have a computer, so she uses paper statements and the phone to keep tabs on where her money goes.

She has to, she says, because she is on a fixed income and survives almost solely on Social Security and SSI (supplemental security income). She also receives a small stipend for her work three days a week as a foster grandparent through the local resource center Passages, but those checks will stop coming when school lets out in May.

That’s why Appel got nervous when she had trouble finding out if she was going to get financial help this year from the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), a federally funded program in which the state pays utility companies directly to alleviate energy costs for low-income households.

On the local level, Butte County’s Community Action Agency is in charge of processing applications and determining the eligibility of residents, who qualify based on income and energy costs. Speaking in broad terms, HEAP can save an average household $200 to $400 on energy costs a year, said Tom Tenorio, director of the CAA.

Appel has been using the program on and off since moving to Chico from New York six years ago and says she has HEAP to thank for helping her stay afloat financially. She received her last lump sum of $230 in April 2010 to be used toward her PG&E bills, but it ran out quickly.

She filled out another application and sent it in, but heard nothing by December and called the HEAP phone line. She was met by an automated message telling her applications would be mailed out in bulk (applications are available by mail to disabled and elderly persons), and to call back in early 2011. She did so, and continued to call the program for the next two months. However, she was always met by the same message.

So she waited.

When an application did not arrive, she called PG&E directly to offer to pick up one at the Chico office herself, but was told to call HEAP, then another HEAP number, and so on.

“Whoever I called said, ‘Oh, you got the wrong one. Call here, call here,’ ” she said. “It seems misleading in a way. If you’re not going to help someone, don’t redirect them.”

Eventually, Appel got hold of a live HEAP staff member on March 24, who told her “there aren’t any funds” for the program, she said. She was relieved to have an answer, but remains slightly irritated by what she calls an “evasive” system that operates almost solely on automated, outdated messages.

Tenorio confirmed the program has yet to secure a 2011 contract with the state because the budget has lagged. A new contract is usually signed each January, but the process has been less consistent for the past few years, he said.

Without a contract, the only money available is what’s left over from the 2010 contract. That money is allocated to a small group of households that have the highest level of need based on income and energy costs. “We also consider whether they have medical conditions and if they’ve been served more than once,” he said, noting that those who have used the service several times become less of a priority the next time around.

So far this year, only 84 local houses have received financial assistance from HEAP (in past years, the program has assisted 480 households), Tenorio said.

A call this week to the HEAP number listed on the state’s and county’s websites was met with an automated message explaining that only 2010 funding is left, and those interested in obtaining funding for 2011 should call back at the end of June or early July.

Unfortunately, in Appel’s opinion, that message was updated too late. She remains frustrated by the phone tag she had to play to get an answer, and does not know how she will pay her energy bills in upcoming months.

“I guess I’ll have to make money elastic and stretch it,” said Appel, in her classic New York accent.

Tenorio said the agency hopes to secure a contract within the next couple of weeks, which will allow the agency to begin reviewing applications for the rest of 2011. He explained that the past several years have been extra difficult financially for the agency and that automated attendants free up staff to review applications. They have a goal of returning phone calls within 24 hours.

He acknowledged the agency did not formally notify residents about the program’s limited funding with a public service announcement.

“That might be something we can look at doing in the future,” he said.