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Help available to pay heating bills

(MCT) – As the temperature plunges, more families will start cranking up the heat.

But for low-income individuals or those facing unemployment, foreclosure and a stack of unpaid bills, covering the cost of utilities can be daunting.

“The demand for utility assistance across the board is increasing way beyond what we’ve ever seen before,” said Carolyn Zwick, executive director of the Arizona Community Action Association.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently said it was releasing $7.8 million to Arizona to help low-income citizens with heating bills during October, November and December. The funds represent grants to states, tribes and territories under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.

The money is distributed by agencies, such as the Arizona Community Action Association, directly to utilities to help families pay heating bills during emergencies.

Zwick said the $7.8 million Arizona is to receive is an advance on the cash Congress is expected to set aside for the program in the 2010 budget.

Most families reach out for LIHEAP funds when unpaid bills pile up and the utility threatens to shut off the service, Zwick said.

High demand

From July 1, 2008, to June 30 this year, 4,532 households – for a total of 10,611 individuals – received assistance from the Tucson Urban League and Pima County Community Action.

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From July through September, 1,707 households with 5,402 individuals received LIHEAP help from the two organizations.

Who’s eligible

Families with incomes lower than 200 percent of the federal poverty level can get emergency help paying utility bills. For a family of four, that means the monthly income cannot exceed $3,676.

Who to contact

Help is available for low-income families struggling to pay utility bills. Contact:

Help from the utilities

  • Southwest Gas offers special discount rates for low-income households during November through April. The Low Income Ratepayer Assistance program offers a 20 percent monthly discount on the first 150 therms of gas usage to qualifying households. The program also reduces the monthly basic service charge to $7.50 from $10.50. It is available to households with an annual income less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $33,000 for a family of four.
  • Natural-gas customers can call Southwest Gas at (877) 860-6020 to see if they qualify.

Tucson Electric Power Co. offers a Residential Lifeline Discount, which reduces qualifying customers’ bills by $8 each month.

To qualify, combined household income must be less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $2,757 per month for a family of four.