Schumer: Boost federal program to help those who qualify pay their heating bills

Joan Gralla

Originally published in Newsday

To aid Long Islanders fearing unaffordable heating bills this winter, Sen. Chuck Schumer said Thursday he will push to speed federal payments from a program for beleaguered families and seniors — and boost the total pot by $100 million.

Speaking in New Hyde Park, the Democratic senate majority leader noted that in previous years, payments from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program were delayed, though they were funded. "It's my job to turn up the heat on the federal government before this worry manifests itself into real trouble," he said.

"The heat is on," he assured an audience of seniors and local elected officials, including North Hempstead Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth, State Sen. Anna Kaplan, who represents Great Neck, and Assemb. Gina Sillitti, of Manorhaven, all Democrats.

The federal emergency home heating program, which helps pay bills from utilities or for weatherizing homes and buying more energy-efficient cooling and heating units, is relied upon by hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, he said, who qualify because their incomes are no higher than 60% of the state's median.

"We could face, as Newsday itself reported, [a] 21% increase in winter heating bills," Schumer said.

He pinned rising energy prices on worldwide bottlenecks, all stemming from COVID-19. "The pandemic is still wreaking havoc on supply chains across the globe," he said.

Just last week, residential customers statewide were cautioned to expect gas heating bills to jump around 21%, or $165 through this winter, while Long Island customers could see a spike of up to 26%, or $215, industry and state officials predicted.

And just on Wednesday, the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecast households will spend 54% more for propane, 43% more for heating oil, 30% more for natural gas, and 6% more for electric heating than they did last winter.

Around 700 applications in just the first two weeks of this year's enrollment period already have been submitted — 20% above last year's pace — estimated Jeffrey Reynolds, CEO of the Garden City-based nonprofit the Family and Children's Association. "We need this now, more than ever," he said.

Last year, 18,839 Nassau households were aided by the program, with 1,000 getting emergency help, which means they were in danger of a shutoff, Schumer said. Demand was more than three times as high in Suffolk: 62,714 households benefited, with 7,700 emergency cases.

While the extra $100 million has yet to be approved by Congress, Schumer said it "usually gets bipartisan support because heat is needed in Republican states and Democratic states."

Other elected officials also stressed the program's importance.

"We need to be ready and to step up and help our most vulnerable neighbors so they don't get stuck out in the cold with bills they can't pay," Kaplan said.

Sillitti, said, "It doesn't matter what ZIP code you live in, people are hurting everywhere."

For New York, Schumer estimated a single person with an income of $31,000 or less is eligible; for a family of four, the amount is $60,000.

Competition from energy-parched Europe is pushing up prices of natural gas and crude oil, experts said. So is the rebounding economy.

"As we have moved beyond what we expect to be the deepest part of the pandemic-related economic downturn, growth in energy demand has generally outpaced growth in supply," said EIA acting administrator Steve Nalley in a statement.