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With cold comes increased need for energy assistance

When the temperature drops below zero, thoughts turn to heating bills. And for a growing number of Dakota County residents that means looking for a little help to make ends meet.

At the CAP Agency's energy assistance program, the result has been some busy times in recent weeks. Three weeks ago the program, which provides grants to help qualified applicants pay their utility bills each winter, had received 12 percent more applications than it had for the same period last year. After a string of sub-zero nights earlier this month, things got even busier.

Susan Hilla, CAP's director of energy assistance, said the program got a flood of applications following the recent cold snap. By early last week the program had received 28 percent more applications than last winter. And last winter was up from the winter before.

"That's going to peak," Hilla said. "With the cold weather we go way up."

The application period for the energy assistance program runs from Oct. 1 through May 31. CAP uses a formula that includes household size, income and type of heat to determine the size of the grant each qualified applicant gets. Last year the average grant for the Dakota County area was $347. So far this year it's $445. Everyone who qualifies gets at least $100.

There are also opportunities to receive up to $500 in emergency grants to pay for immediate furnace repairs or to prevent heat shutoff.

Through Jan. 5 CAP had approved and paid 4,043 applications for primary heat and 1,317 for people with crisis situations. But Hilla said that number changes quickly. The agency processes the applications as they come in, and there were more than 1,500 pending early this week. There were also more than 2,600 applications sent out in August -- to people who received assistance last year or who have otherwise been identified as candidates for assistance -- that have not yet been returned.

The program serves a wide range of residents. Some are low-income families having trouble paying the bills. Others are people hit hard by the slow economy who find themselves in need of help for the first time.

"Especially since the economy has gotten worse, a lot of people that have never used us before (are applying)," Hilla said. "Whenever there's a massive layoff, like last year with Northwest, we got a lot of people. We get a lot of people on unemployment as a source of income."

Hilla calls the energy assistance program the first line of defense for Dakota County residents. And that defense is about more than just paying bills. The program can also help people who are having problems with their gas or electric companies. There are rules against shutting off someone's heat in the winter, and such shutoffs rarely occur. But Hilla said they are possible if people do not follow the rules. And even if the heat stays on, if someone's electricity gets cut they can't power a furnace.

If they can, program employees will point people toward thrift shops for warm clothes or to other emergency services.

"We try to do as much of that as we can with the volume we have," Hilla said. "We try to make the time for the clients who need it."

Everyone who qualifies for the energy assistance program is also eligible for weatherization assistance that can be as simple as new caulking around windows or as involved as providing a new furnace.

Most people seem to appreciate the help. But a few get upset if they don't feel the agency is processing their application fast enough or if they don't feel like they got as much money as they should have. Hilla tells her employees to chalk any bad behavior up to the stress people feel when they're worried about keeping their homes heated.

"The idea is to help and not just pay people's bills," Hilla said.

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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