Warm temps don't stop need for energy assistance - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Warm temps don't stop need for energy assistance

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WATERLOO (KWWL) -

A warm winter means much lower utility bills.  Cedar Falls Utilities and MidAmerican Energy each report about a 20% drop in overall gas use through mid-January.  MidAmerican says electricity use has also fallen by 8%.  On top of that, power bills have gone down since natural gas is significantly cheaper this year.  It's down around 13% from last winter.  But despite those lower costs, record numbers of people still need help paying their utility bills.

3,700 people like Kenneth Allen have applied for energy assistance so far this winter season through Operation Threshold. 

"Paying all the bills I pay, sometimes it can be really hard.  If it wasn't for my sister, and Operation Threshold, I don't know what I would do," Allen said.

Right now, Iowa utilities report 265,000 people are past due on their utility bills.  That's a 3% jump from last year.  But big budget cuts mean Operation Threshold can't offer as much assistance to people in need this year.

"Whereas last year at this point in time our average payment was $429, right now our average payment is $285," said Barb Grant with Operation Threshold.

Even with the nicer weather, Operation Threshold is still seeing record numbers of people getting applications for heating assistance.  But possibly because of the mild winter, many of the applications haven't been turned in yet.  There's a danger to that.

"If all the sudden at the end, a lot of applications come in, we could run out of money.  So the state tries to project and things, but if we have an inordinate number of households that apply at the last minute, they could potentially not get any assistance," Grant said.

So having your application turned in will at least give you a shot at getting what help is available.  There's another big advantage to getting LIHEAP help now.  If Iowa's winter weather returns, and your bills stack up, power companies can't shut off your electricity until April 1.

About 40% of people applying for LIHEAP assistance do have a job, and another 38% get Social Security.  But rising food costs, high gas prices, and other factors make it tougher to afford monthly utilities, even if families use less heat because of warmer weather.

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