'Send help': Minnesotans worry as heating costs climb, winter nears
State agencies are encouraging people to apply for energy assistance
Betty Nordstrom has been worrying since she received her energy assistance grant notification about two weeks ago.
"They said that my amount was $554 for fuel oil,” she said. “It’s such a low amount, when fuel oil is $5.19 per gallon."
This year's energy assistance grant paid for about 100 gallons of fuel, far less than the 500 gallons it takes to heat her century-old home in a typical winter.
Nordstrom, 71, lives in the north woods about 20 miles east of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. She has diabetes and uses a wheelchair. She gets by on Social Security benefits.
"It goes only so far. I don't know what I'm going to do this winter after Christmas. Because that's how long the fuel oil will last, till Christmas," she said.
Pre-pandemic, Nordstrom would have paid $2.50 to $2.90 per gallon for fuel oil, according to the federal energy information agency.
'Hearing concerns every day'
Nordstrom gets her energy assistance through the MAHUBE OTWA Community Action Agency, which serves five north-central Minnesota counties.
The agency is hearing from many people surprised by the much smaller energy assistance grants this year.
"We're hearing concerns every day, staff here are fielding telephone calls, people have sent in letters asking for a redetermination. We're definitely seeing some frustration with the funding levels," said Dan Josephson, director of energy programs for MAHUBE OTWA.
Josephson said so far this year, the average heating assistance grant is $580. Last year, the average was $1,199.
That discrepancy is similar statewide.
"Funding is about half as much; it's actually less than half of what it was last year. So that's why folks are seeing a reduction in those benefits," said Michael Schmitz, energy assistance program director at the Minnesota Department of Commerce.
“In pre-COVID time, we would typically receive around $116 million each year for energy assistance,” he said. “As part of the American Rescue Plan Act, we got an additional $167 million on top of the annual $116 million that we get. So we had more than a doubling of the amount of funding available for last year's heating season.”
That extra money allowed the state to provide larger individual heating assistance grants.
The agency also used the influx of funding to pay past-due heating bills for thousands of low-income Minnesotans.
The formula for distributing funds considers income, the type of heating fuel used, and other factors.
But the formula also has to be adjusted to meet demand.
125,000 assistance applications expected
"Our goal is to neither run out, nor leave any money on the table,” Schmitz said. “We try to thread the needle and serve everybody with the funding we get each year."
He expects about 125,000 applications for energy assistance grants this year.
“There's probably more need than there's funding available in a typical year. We serve anywhere from 20 to 25% of the estimated eligible population in the state of Minnesota," Schmitz said. “So basically, if you step back and you take a look at census data on household income, we estimate that there are over 500,000 households in the state that could be eligible for programs like energy assistance.”
Schmitz said federal energy assistance funding has been static for the past decade, except for the large pandemic-related infusion last year.
He said the state has received $19.7 million in additional federal funds this fall, and he's hopeful Congress will provide more funding in response to the inflated heating costs.
Additional dollars will be used for crisis funding, when people run out of fuel and have no other options.
Bill Grant is executive director of the Minnesota Community Action Partnership, representing agencies across the state that distribute much of the energy assistance programs.
“I would urge people, even if they feel like the assistance amount may not be fully adequate, to go ahead and apply,” he said. “Because by doing so, if more money were to become available, they would be potentially in line for additional assistance.”
Grant said the impact of rising fuel costs is more acutely felt in rural areas, where natural gas is not an option for home heating.
"With fuel prices being higher than they had been, that's going to create issues, particularly for people with delivered fuels like propane or fuel oil, [because] typically, those energy providers require an upfront payment for a fill," he said.
Betty Nordstrom is pondering where she will find the cash to fill her fuel oil tank before it runs dry, and not seeing many options.
“Maybe the good Lord will send help,” she said.