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Minnesota gets more federal help for heating assistance

State officials say Minnesota is getting $144.5 million from the federal government to help low-income residents pay heating bills.

The amount is nearly double what the state received last year. It's the state's share of the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The program helps low-income people pay their heating bills through grant money paid directly to the utility company on behalf of the customer. Individual grants will average about $500. Grant applications are handled on a first-come, first-served basis.

The news that Minnesota is receiving more federal aid for heating assistance comes as some counties are already seeing a large number of applications.

"We've had a lot more calls than at this time last year," Vel Strukel, basic needs program manager for the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency said Monday.

AEOA already has received 4,840 applications for assistance from residents of St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties. That's 522 more than this time last year. The agency is seeing more requests for help from senior citizens this year, Strukel said.

Last winter, AEOA received 8,500 applications by April 17, when the state ran out of money in the assistance program.

Not only are more people applying for help this year, but the average amount that people already owe utility companies is higher than last year, Strukel said.

Department of Commerce spokesman Bill Walsh said that since the grants are on a first-come, first-served basis, people who think they may be eligible for the program and expect to need help with heating costs should get their applications in.

Families who earn less than 50 percent of the state's median income are eligible for the program. For a family of four, that's $40,738.