Help for Paying for Heating Bills
Winter is here and along with it high heating bills. If your budget is tight and you’re worried about paying bills on time, call your utility company NOW to ask for assistance. There are programs that can help, especially if you plan ahead.
This article summarizes the programs available throughout Michigan. There might also be programs unique to your area – call your local Area Agency on Aging (www.mi-seniors.net) or Community Action Agency (www.mcaaa.org) for more information.
Budget Billing Plan
Upon request, utilities will bill a customer an equal amount each month, allowing the customer to pay an estimated average. For example, if your heating bills last year were $1200, you can ask to be billed $100 each month, instead of having low bills in the summer and high bills in the winter. Gas and electric companies offer this option to all customers, regardless of income – contact them directly to sign up.
Winter Protection Plan
This plan protects all seniors 65+ and low-income customers from service shutoffs between November 1st and March 31st. (Some utilities offer this protection to those 62+.) Between these dates, seniors are protected from shut-offs even if they make no monthly payments. (They are encouraged to pay something, however, to avoid higher bills when the protection period ends and they are required to pay.) Low-income customers are required to pay at least 7% of their estimated annual bills between November 1st and March 31st, along with a portion of any past-due amount. Low-income customers are defined as either 1) receiving cash assistance from the Department of Human Services; 2) receiving Food Stamps or Medicaid; or 3) having an annual household income at or below 150% of the poverty level (which in 2011 is $10,890 for one person and $14,710 for two – these amounts will go up slightly for 2012). Both seniors and low-income customers must pay back any money owed between April and October, and shut-offs are allowed during this period. All gas and electric companies offer the Winter Protection Plan; be sure to contact your utility company to let them know you qualify.
This program helps low-income customers of all ages reduce their heating costs by making apartments and homes more energy efficient. Households that are weatherized can save as much as 20-30%. The program provides home inspections, and can pay for a wide variety of repairs and services such as installing insulation, and repairing or replacing furnaces, heating ducts, thermostats, and water heaters. Services are delivered on a first-come, first-served basis until funding is depleted. To be eligible, you must have a household income at or below 200% of poverty (which in 2011 is $21,780 for one person and $29,420 for two – these amounts will go up slightly for 2012). You are also eligible if you receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or cash assistance from the Department of Human Services. Most weatherization providers are Community Action Agencies. To find the agency that serves your area, look in the phone book’s business section under Community Action Agency, or on the Internet, go to www.mcaaa.org.
Home Heating Tax Credit
Low-income customers, including seniors, can receive a state income tax credit for last year’s heating expenses. You can apply for a Home Heating Tax Credit even if you don’t pay income tax or file an income tax return; a separate form is used. Eligibility is based on household income, the number of people in the household and actual heating costs. Applications will be available in January from the Michigan Department of Treasury by calling (517) 636-4486. Forms are also available on the Internet at www.michigan.gov/taxes. Applications can be filed between January 1 and September 30.
State Emergency Relief
Run by the Department of Human Services (DHS), this program is available to low-income individuals year-round on a first-come, first-served basis until funding is depleted. It can help with a variety of emergency expenses, including utility bills and energy-related home repairs. Assistance is provided to those with an immediate crisis, for example, receiving a shut-off notice. The monthly income limit for energy assistance is $1,909 for a one-person household and $2,496 for a two-person household. (The limit goes up with each additional person in the household.) There may also be an asset test. Payments are made directly to the utility company or repair contractor. To apply, call the DHS office located in your county for an appointment. Current DHS clients can apply online at www.michigan.gov/heatingassistance.
Propane, Heating Oil, Coal or Wood
Low-income customers running out of heating fuels may be able to get help from their local Community Action Agency, if funding is available – www.mcaaa.org.
Some utilities have created their own programs to help with utility bills. For example, Consumers Energy, in partnership with the Salvation Army, operates the “People Care Plus” program for their service areas. Another program, known as THAW (The Heat and Warmth Fund) is available in 53 of Michigan’s 83 counties, including the Upper Peninsula. Help from THAW is provided to households already shut-off or completely out of fuel, as well as some in danger of being shut-off. Customers must have a household income at or below 200% of poverty (which in 2011 is $21,780 for one person and $29,420 for two) and are required to apply for all other assistance first. Payments are made directly to utility companies or vendors. Applications can be submitted at the Salvation Army and some other organizations. For more information, call THAW at (800) 866-8429 or visit their website at www.thawfund.org.
If you have a complaint about your gas or electric company and the company hasn’t resolved it to your satisfaction, call the Michigan Public Service Commission at 1-800-292-9555.
(This article taken from the November, 2011 issue of Aging Alert, a publication of the Area Agencies on Aging Association of Michigan. Click here for more information on this publication)