An additional $210 million could help heat more Pennsylvania homes this winter if Congress approves legislation providing more money to a federal home heating assistance program.
While winter's chill may seem a distant concern for some, federal lawmakers concerned with the increasing price of fuel aim to plan ahead and seek an additional $2.53 billion to fund the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
A state proponent of the funding, Rep. Camille "Bud" George, D-Houtzdale, said the extra funds would be a "godsend" and said his office typically starts receiving calls in January from LIHEAP recipients who already used their assistance and need more help.
"The stories make you question just how caring and compassionate we are as a nation," George said. "Obviously, the existing public and private safety nets already are stretched to the limit."
Pennsylvania's LIHEAP offers cash and crisis grants to residents who need help paying their heating bills. Eligible applicants must meet federal poverty income guidelines, a maximum $30,975 for a family of four.
Residents can receive from $100 cash grants to $300 crisis grants in situations including broken heating equipment or utility service termination.
Last winter, the state Department of Public Welfare provided LIHEAP funding to more than 500,000 families. About 371,000 received cash grants, 120,000 received crisis grants and about 50,000 received funding if a utility shut off their heat and gave a termination notice.
Pennsylvania received nearly $180 million in federal funding for the 2007-08 season, ending with about a $13 million balance to carry over into this winter's need.
DPW spokeswoman Stacey Witalec said the department would consider how best to use the additional funding, if received.
"In past years, we've done things like change the eligibility limits for the program," she said. "That helped us reach 67,000 additional families. We've increased the crisis grant amount, which helps us help families who maybe had a broken furnace."
Witalec said there's "never any reason for any Pennsylvania family to be cold."
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Pa., co-sponsored the federal funding bill and expressed his support during a conference call with reporters Wednesday.
"One of the areas of real concern in this economy, especially with all the attention that has been paid to the price of gasoline, one of the real fears is in the heat of the summer, we'll forget that just around the corner it'll be the cold and darkness of winter," Casey said. "One of the ways we can prevent a lot of problems is to do the right thing on LIHEAP."
To pay for the additional funding, Casey said the federal government must come up with the money from existing resources in a budget in the trillions of dollars.
"I'd certainly be glad to increase taxes on wealthy Americans for this," he said, referring to President Bush's tax cuts.
Witalec said Pennsylvania's LIHEAP needs to change each year, often depending on family situations. She and George pointed out this year's fuel costs continuing to rise and families suffering in a difficult economy.
George continues work to secure Pennsylvania LIHEAP supplements. The state energy package passed earlier this month includes $40 million to help fund the program.
"As it now stands, I would say it's a pretty safe bet we're going to need that money," George said.
Mirror Staff Writer Jessica VanderKolk is at 946-7465.