The Star-Ledger

N.J. Will Help With Home Heating Costs

The Star-Ledger — Sunday, December 21, 2008

By Judy Peet / The Star-Ledger

On the first day of winter, William Sylvester is already panicked that he won't be able to afford to heat his Kearny apartment until spring.

Sylvester, 70, is a retired cop making $200 more than the maximum monthly income limit to receive most public assistance funds. This month, after being "hounded by people calling me from the utility company, telling me they were going to turn off my heat," he borrowed $140 from his son to pay down some of the $417 he owed to PSE&G.

"Borrowing from my son is a humiliation I don't ever want to repeat," said Sylvester. "I paid my bills for 40 years, but now it's come to this. I'd rather give up food than go through that again."

Winter has come in with a blast and despite the drop in oil prices, many social service advocates fear that too many people will sacrifice food, medicine or their health to keep their pipes from freezing this season.

"We are absolutely concerned about seniors who are facing severe economic times," said Patricia Polansky, state assistant commissioner of the division of aging and community services. "We are afraid they will skimp on food or medicine rather than ask for assistance."

Nobody knows what the winter weather or heating costs will be, but many forecasters predict both will be tough. Among the elderly, Polansky said, turn-off isn't the only threat.

"It's not just a matter of freezing," Polansky said. "Some utilities will turn down the heat if the customer is behind on payments. Seniors are much more susceptible to the cold and end up in the hospital."

Last week, Gov. Jon Corzine approved a $22.5 million aid package supplementing the $88 million he approved for home heating aid in October. The new package includes $10 million for those who earn too much to qualify for low-income assistance, but who need temporary help paying their utility bills. The aid will be distributed through the nonprofit NJ SHARES, which has already been flooded with applications.

The NJ SHARES program has no income limit, but is only for those who are facing financial crisis and have a history of good-faith payments of their utility bills. It offers a one-time payment of up to $700 for gas and $1,300 for heating oil.

There are at least a half-dozen other assistance programs, but most are for low-income. Lack of income, however, doesn't have to be chronic to qualify, said Eileen Leahey, director of the payment assistance outreach program at PS&G.

"Most people don't realize that some of the programs are based on last month's income," Leahey said. "It doesn't matter what you made last year if you didn't make anything last month. People may be eligible and don't know it."

She said the utility company is currently mailing 18,000 letters to customers at least three months behind in payments. "We think these are people who are first-timers when it comes to not paying their utility bills but don't realize you don't have to be poor to get help."

The extra funds will only go so far, officials agree, and even expanding aid income limits may leave many customers out in the cold. Representatives for the utilities and heating oil companies stressed, however, that accommodations can, and should, be made to customers.

"As long as people let us know they are having a hardship we can help," said Leahey at PSE&G. "If they are seniors or have disabilities, the heat cannot be turned off. Even if they are not, we can work with them to make a payment plan. But we have to know. We don't want to turn off people's heat."

Heating oil dealers can refuse deliveries to customers in arrears, but "people who are having a tough time should talk their dealers," advised Eric DeGesero of the NJ Fuel Merchants Association. "Particularly if they have been long-time customers, maybe something can be arranged."

The New Jersey Citizen Action Oil Group offers a cooperative buying program that can reduce home heating oil prices. For example, the average price among private New Jersey heating oil dealers is currently $2.50 per gallon. The Citizen Action group negotiated a group deal for $2.

The co-op is open even to people who owe money to other oil companies, although customers with bad credit would most likely have to pay cash on delivery. People who locked into a higher price earlier this year should check their contract. Most have stiff penalties for going to another dealer.

Despite the range of aid programs, some seniors may be too proud or too confused to ask for help, experts noted, urging neighbors to be on the lookout for signs that a household may be in trouble.

Visit your neighbor. Check whether there is enough food, that basic repairs are being made and the rooms aren't too cold. Are the sidewalks being shoveled? Are they seeing the doctor as much as they used to? Are they getting their prescriptions filled?

"This is a proud and self-sufficient age group," Polansky said. "But these days, everybody needs a little help."

Copyright 2008 The Star-Ledger

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