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Heating financial assistance delayed

February 02, 2001

Heating financial assistance delayed



By JULIE E. GREENE / Staff Writer


Many Washington County residents who participate in a state program to help them afford heating costs still haven't received financial assistance or word on whether their application has been approved.

Employees at the Community Action Council, the local agency for the Maryland Energy Assistance Program, are still manually processing grant applications and aren't expected to be done for about three weeks, said Glenda Helman, director of services.

The agency has received approximately 100 telephone calls a day in recent weeks about the grant program after a glitch in a new software program at the Maryland Department of Human Resources created a backlog of grant applications to process, Helman said.

Kathy Rinehart's Hagerstown home was just one of 2,016 low- and moderate-income households in the county that participated in the program last winter.

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Rinehart is still awaiting grant approval and, as a result, will have to dip into her own savings to pay an overdue $242 fuel oil bill from last month.

"I think it's pretty bad, to tell you the truth. This is all set up to help people through the winter, but right now it's not helping," said Rinehart, 54.

To help ease the financial burden, Rinehart has lowered the thermostat in her three-story old house. It still feels comfortable if you're wearing a sweater, she said.

Rinehart's frustrations aren't limited to financial.

She called the Community Action Council about two weeks ago wondering where her heating credit was and was told someone would call her back.

No one did, so she called again this week to find out her Nov. 17 application hadn't been processed yet. They were still working on October's applications.

Helman said she understands the frustrations Rinehart and others have been experiencing.

It's possible some people didn't hear back from the agency because they weren't home when an agency official called, she said.

In response to such concerns the agency is hiring a temporary worker to help field phone calls so agency employees can focus on processing the grant applications, Helman said.

Before last July local agencies would process the grant applications and cut the checks to heating vendors, Helman said.

Last July the state began using new software for the Maryland Energy Assistance Program and the new Electric Universal Service Program. The software was to enable local agencies to type applications into the computer, which would determine who is eligible for heating and electrical assistance, Helman said.

Then local agency officials would call the proper utility to notify them of the grant, Helman said. Funding would be drawn from the appropriate program.

Using the new software, the computer would frequently crash, Helman said.

"It would take an hour to put in one application. Well, that's not very productive," Helman said.

Agency officials realized the seriousness of the backlog in late December and early January, during the season's first long cold spell, as they began getting a lot of calls from people wanting to know where their heating credit was, Helman said.

The agency was granted a waiver from the state, allowing it on Jan. 10 to begin manually processing grant applications while state officials continue trying to fix the software problem, she said.

The agency also is cutting checks to local fuel companies and landlords, who include the cost of heating in rent, Helman said. The state department is still issuing checks to electric and gas companies.

Allegheny Power and Columbia Gas officials said the firms haven't cut off any Washington County residents' services because of the computer glitch.

But hundreds of other households in the state had their heating service terminated so the Maryland People's Counsel, Michael J. Travieso, is asking the Maryland Public Service Commission to issue a moratorium on termination notices for the winter, one of the coldest in recent memory.

As of Friday, the commission had not issued a decision.

For now, EAP participants who have received termination notices or have less than 1/8 of a tank of fuel oil left can apply for crisis funding that will be applied toward their grant, Helman said.

Appointments for crisis assistance can be made by calling 301-797-4161, but the applicant must show up to go through the application process, Helman said.

The agency is busy, but often can help customers process grants the same day they make the appointment, she said.

Some people won't come in for crisis funding because they are too proud or want to make sure more needy families are helped first, Helman said.

The Community Action Council is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. On Wednesdays the agency is open from noon to 8 p.m., serving first shift workers from 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

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