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Demand for help with heating bills already strong this winter
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Community Action of Minneapolis and other heating assistance distributors expects a busy winter this year. (MPR Photo/ Mark Zdechlik)
State officials and community service organizations are urging people who think they may need help paying their heating bills this winter to apply for heating assistance as soon as possible. Demand for assistance is expected to be strong this year. The cost of natural gas and oil is projected to be up by as much as 1/3 over last year and many of people are still trying to pay off last winter's heating bills.

St. Paul, Minn. — For many, the Thanksgiving holiday marks the beginning of the final push to complete Christmas shopping lists.

For thousands of Minnesotans, this weekend and the return of cold winter weather bring renewed concerns about heating bills. "This is the only bill that we worry about really," said Shatara Lugelow as she stood outside the Community Action of Minneapolis heating assistance office on Park Avenue, just south of downtown Minneapolis.

Lugelow says she's looking for help paying her heating bill for the first time. She says she knows many other people who, until this year, have never applied for assistance.

"Two of my friends are and one of my sisters are and I know my auntie applied earlier this month," Lugelow said. "We're all new."

It's not just the bills that will be coming this winter that Lugelow says she's worried about. She's still trying to pay off last winter's heating bills.

Tony Spears who oversees heating assistance for Community Action of Minneapolis says the program has been swamped with telephone calls and office visits since it reopened for the season at the beginning of October.

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Image Tony Spears oversees the heating assistance program for Community Action of Minneapolis.

"The biggest thing we're seeing is people who are coming in here with high past due amounts, Spears said. "We're looking at probably average people coming in here with past due amounts that averages about $1,200 that is past due. So therefore when we give them assistance most times the assistance we can give them doesn't even pay for the past due and they got the whole winter in front of them."

Spears says his office has seen a 25 percent increase over last year in the number of people whose power has been cut off because of unpaid bills. He says most of the applicants have jobs but just don't make enough money to pay their heating bills. Other heating assistance distributors also say they've been busy this year and that they expect they'll be even busier now that furnaces and boilers are kicking in with the cold weather.

In its recently passed omnibus appropriations bill, Congress earmarked $1.9 billion for heating assistance, about $100 million more than last year.

The director of the Minnesota energy assistance program at the Commerce Department, John Jarvanko, says Minnesota will get about $73.5 million which will help about 111,000 households.

"They get a range of assistance anywhere from $100 to $1200, depending on three factors; their income, family size and consumption level -- energy consumption level and the average grant is about $400," explained Jarvanko.

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Image Xcel Energy spokesman Ed Legge

A majority of Minnesotans heat with natural gas. CenterPoint Energy Minnegasco and Xcel Energy both estimate that the cost of natural gas will be up in the neighborhood of 30 percent this heating season. The Department of Commerce says it expects the price of other fuels such as heating oil to increase by about the same amount.

The good news, says Xcel spokesman Ed Legge, is that it's been a relatively warm least until now. He says that should help keep prices from climbing even higher.

"The November price was fairly high -- about $1 a therm and that's only the third time in the last 20 years that it's been that high." Legge said. "But we also think that it's an incredibly sensitive market. The fact that oil prices have been higher means that big companies that use can use either oil or natural gas are sticking with natural gas so that kind of puts a bottom on the price but at the same time, the storage is very robust going into the winter and so we're hopeful that if it's a warmer or mild winter than that will help prices."

Energy assistance is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis and officials are urging people who think they might need help to apply as soon as possible.

In addition to the $1.9 billion appropriated for heating assistance, Congress approved $300 million in contingency money that, depending on the weather and the cost of fuel, could be dispersed later this winter.

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