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Demand on the rise for energy assistance

With colder weather settling in, thermostats are getting turned up.

But for those who are struggling financially, the flick of the furnace switch also turns up the stress.

That's where the Wisconsin Home Energy Assistance Program comes in. Although there is a moratorium preventing energy companies from turning off heat between Nov. 1 and April 15 in Wisconsin, provided customers were connected prior to Nov. 1 and are on a payment plan for past due bills, extra help is sometimes needed.

More people need WHEAP help this year due to the slow economy and more people are eligible for it.

Eligibility requirements for WHEAP have changed drastically since last year. Now eligible households must have an income at or below 60 percent of the state's median quarterly income, meaning $5,859 for a one-person household, $7,661 for a two-person household, $9,464 for a three-person household and $11,267 for a four-person household.

That means the money available will be divided among a greater number of households. St. Croix County Economic Support, which distributes the funds, doesn't yet know exactly how much they'll get this year, said Mary Squyer, supervisor.

"Unfortunately the benefits are going to be less," she said. Those who ask for help will get assistance and will have heat this winter, she added.

St. Croix County has seen an increase in people applying already this year. That's the trend state-wide. The state anticipates nearly 256,000 Wisconsin families will receive energy assistance to pay a portion of their fuel costs this heating season, a 40 percent increase over last year, according to a release from the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin.

"There's a panic in the air. Clients truly are scared," Squyer said. "In my 29 years, I've never seen people so truly, truly frightened."

Several programs are offered through WHEAP.

Heating Assistance is a one-time payment given to the household's heat provider. The money is not intended to cover the entire bill. How much money a household gets depends on factors like family size, income and heating costs.

The office has distributed $166,724 for 628 families since they started Oct. 1 through Friday, Nov. 13. Another 175 cases are pending, Squyer said. Last year between Nov. 1 and April 15, 1,752 applied for help.

Electric assistance is a one-time payment made to a household's electric provider, funded through Wisconsin's Public Benefits. Vendors can choose whether they'd like to distribute this funding or have the county handle it. Five providers in St. Croix County distribute this money themselves. The county has paid out $38,865 from Oct. 1-Nov. 13.

Crisis Assistance is available to those needing more help after receiving heating assistance money. Many people who have already accessed crisis assistance this heating season use fuel oil to heat their residences.

Providers of fuel oil are exempt from the moratorium, meaning they can refuse to serve those behind on their bills, Squyer said.

"Those are the people we're singling out to make sure they get help," she said. Few homes still use fuel oil, she added.

Between Oct. 1 and Nov. 13, a total of $205,589 in help has been distributed through WHEAP.

"That's much, much more than last year," Squyer said.

For the most part, people receiving WHEAP funds genuinely need the help. There are always a few taking the money because it's available, Squyer said.

"We try to proactively work with these people and have them assume some accountability," she explained. "You are accountable for your bill."

Although those behind on their bill may not want to talk to their vendor, that's a key step when behind on payments, Squyer said. When the moratorium ends, clients need to get on payment plans to catch up.

"A goal we have is to remind everyone to keep in touch with their vendors. The clients need to make an effort and keep in contact," she said.

Squyer and her staff encourage people in need of help to get in touch with the St. Croix County Economic Support office.

"We've been very busy this year. We're helping more people than we've ever had to before. But we're going to be able to help them," Squyer said.

The Economic Support office, located in the Health and Human Services Building, 1445 N. Fourth St., New Richmond, has walk-in appointments about WHEAP assistance from 8-11 a.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. People may also call the office at (715) 246-8257 to have an application mailed to them. Information needed to fill out the application includes proof of citizenship, social security card and verification of income for three months prior.