By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer
No one needs to explain the value of the state’s heating assistance program to Nancy Traynor.
She’s needed that help for several years. It has helped get her through the winter, helped keep her children warm.
Now, however, that help is in jeopardy. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has allocated less money for the program, and now many who rely on that help may not get it this year.
“I’m not going to have that help to get through that wintertime,” said Traynor of Waseca. “There’s going to be a lot of giving up stuff to make sure we have heat in our home.”
In south-central Minnesota, the Minnesota Valley Action Council distributes the heating assistance funds allocated by the federal government. Last year, MVAC served about 7,000 families through the program.
So far this year they already received 4,500 applications, roughly half of which are complete and waiting for a check.
But MVAC officials say they’re unsure what they’ll tell people about this year’s heating assistance budget.
The story of the halved heating assistance budget began when, at the end of the fiscal year, there was no new federal budget. Because of that, the Department of Health and Human Services decided to fund its program based on the lower of two possible budget amounts that were in play at the time: the House’s $3.3 billion.
Long story short, that means the $4 million MVAC had to work with last year just got cut in half for this year.
Judd Schultz, housing services director for MVAC, said it’s possible the department’s budget could be revisited when Congress reconvenes Nov. 15. Just as likely, though, is that the current crop of lawmakers will leave this task to the newcomers in January.
He hopes it’s the former.
“People are out of work,” Schultz said. “They’re saying ‘I don’t what I’d do without you.’ We have a lot of people in that situation.”
Heating assistance helps people pay their heating bill, includes crisis money for people in shut-off situations and pays for emergency repair and replacement of furnaces in the winter.
The average award MVAC gives out is $515, while the maximum is $1,400 and the minimum $100.
“We’ll be lucky if all 4,500 get money,” Schultz said.
April Garcia of Madelia said her heating bill last year was $6,000. Without MVAC’s program, she wouldn’t have been able to cover it.
“This year it helped me the most,” she said of heating the farmhouse she bought from her parents. “I don’t know how I’d keep the house heated.”