The heating season is upon us in northern Michigan, and it may be a lot harder for people who need help this winter paying the gas bill.
The state is expecting steep cuts from Washington in energy assistance funds and here in Michigan there's an added problem. A court battle has frozen another $90 million dollar fund used for emergency heat assistance and energy efficiency projects.
Disabled with multiple sclerosis for 37 years, Donna spends a lot of time at home in the winter months. It's just her and the kitty. She uses a motorized scooter to get around.
She can't afford plowing, or a computer. She has eight channels on the television, "which I may have to get rid of those even because it's just too much, even for eight channels on your television. You know, I like to see the weather and see the news," she says.
But Donna's Social Security income is less than $9,000 dollars a year. Because she's disabled and lives alone, she didn't want us to use her last name for this story. She spoke with us as a client of the non-profit Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency. She says her thermostat stays at about 64 or 65 degrees all winter long.
"You know, you just put everything way down," she says. "So you bundle up with all the extra clothes and stuff like that because that what you have to do in the wintertime around here."
Last year, Donna had help paying her energy bills, as did roughly 700,000 others, according to numbers from the state Department of Human Services.
Frozen In The Courts
Still unknown is how much money there will be this winter to help people like Donna.
Lawmakers in Washington could decide to cut federal assistance as much as 50 percent. Meanwhile a state fund is caught up in litigation, the Low Income and Energy Efficiency Fund, or LIEFF.
The fund comes from a surcharge on gas and electric bills. You've been paying into the fund if you're a customer of Michigan Consolidated Gas, Consumers or Detroit Edison.
Some fellow ratepayers, big ratepayers, several large manufacturers sued over that surcharge and won in the state Court of Appeals this summer.
Attorney Robert Strong represents those large manufacturers.
"Funding for LIEEF was first approved by the Legislature in 2000. In 2008, they took out all of the authorization for any LIEEF funding. So the intent of the Legislature was that there should not be any LIEFF funding in rates," he says.
The state Public Service Commission is appealing to the state Supreme Court. The Commission argues that wasn't the intent of the Legislature at all, that it was a simple omission in the midst of a major re-write of the state's energy laws.
Former state Lawmaker David Palsrok thinks that's what happened too. At the time the Republican represented four northern Michigan lakeshore counties from Mason to Leelanau.
Palsrok says he doesn't remember any big debate in 2008 on getting rid of this fund, designed to help the poor. He says that's odd, especially under a Democratic governor.
"Trying to eliminate a low-income type program, I think there would have been a lot of discussion about that, not only publically but also throughout the negotiations as we were trying to move that legislation through," he says.
Palsrok says the current legislature could clarify the law, or find a stop-gap.
Social Workers Concerned
Money from the fund is traditionally passed out through state social workers and a number of non-profits, such as the Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency.
Val Stone runs the heating assistance program there for a five county region near Traverse City. Last year she helped more than a thousand families.
With all these things up in the air, she has no idea how much she'll be able to help this year. People will likely have to go several agencies, she says, before they can get enough help for even one Petroleum tank fill up.
"You know, you go from place to place wherever there might be a little bit of money. But at any one place you're not going to get enough to actually get a fuel delivery or enough to cover a large shut-off amount (if someone owes a large back bill)," she says.