Authorities fear more people grapple with heating bills in winter

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Local authorities are expressing concern that more Bartholomew County residents may struggle to pay for their utilities this winter as heating bills are set to rise and consumer prices are set to remain high.

Earlier this month, the federal government said it expects Midwestern households to pay up to $ 818 to heat their homes with natural gas from October through March, a 49% increase compared to last winter.

The largest increase is expected for propane-using households, which could see an increase of 69% – about $ 800 – to $ 1,805 over the same period, according to estimates from the United States Energy Information Administration. .

Volunteers sort food for distribution to local schools at the Love Chapel Food Pantry in Columbus on Tuesday. The pantry also serves those who need help paying their utility bills. Mike Wolanin | The Republic

Those who use electricity in the Midwest are expected to see a more modest increase of 5%, to $ 1,346.

Indiana has certain outage protections during the colder months of the year, including a moratorium that prohibits utility companies from disconnecting service from December 1 to March 15 for anyone who qualifies and has requested the federal energy assistance program.

But the protections do not erase the obligation to pay the bills that may have piled up over the winter, forcing local authorities to prepare for a spike in people asking for help once the moratorium is over. ended.

Cathy Tower sorts food for distribution to local schools at the Love Chapel Food Pantry in Columbus on Tuesday.  The pantry also helps those who need help paying their utility bills.  Mike Wolanin |  The Republic
Cathy Tower sorts food for distribution to local schools at the Love Chapel Food Pantry in Columbus on Tuesday. The pantry also helps those who need help paying their utility bills. Mike Wolanin | The Republic

“There will be a wave of people who will need help,” said Kelly Daugherty, executive director of Love Chapel, a local nonprofit that runs a pantry and provides financial assistance for utility bills. public, among other services. “What is happening is that most of these people are subject to the moratorium on utilities during the winter when they cannot be cut. In the spring, that’s when you see the huge bills, the result of what happened during the winter. It’s just a vicious cycle.

Concerns about rising heating bills this winter are also escalating at Human Services Inc., especially as this winter is expected to be slightly colder than last year, meaning people will be using more heat. energy to heat their home and will likely have to pay more for it. .

Human Services Inc. is the service provider in Bartholomew County for several federal programs that aim to help people who are at risk of having their utilities disconnected, including the Energy Assistance Program and the Energy Assistance Program. water to low-income households.

“It’s going to be difficult for our households to make ends meet with a planned increase in their utilities,” said Donna Taylor, executive director of Human Services Inc.

The energy assistance program aims to help people with their heating and electricity bills, according to the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority. The Water Assistance Program helps qualified low-income households pay some water and wastewater bills. Additional help with heating and electricity bills is available through the American Rescue Plan Act, Taylor said.

A significant number of local residents would likely meet the program’s income limits, which are currently set at no more than $ 2,251 per month for a one-person household, $ 2,944 for a two-person household and $ 4,329 for a household. a household of four.

About 1 in 6 households in Bartholomew County reported having an income of less than $ 25,000 in the past year, or less than $ 2,083 per month, according to the most recent estimates from the US Census Bureau.

The US Energy Information Administration forecast is the latest reminder of rising inflation ravaging the global economy, The Associated Press reported.

Earlier this month, the federal government released a report showing prices were 5.4% higher for U.S. consumers in September than a year ago, according to reports. That’s the highest rate of inflation since 2008, as a waking economy and booming supply chains drive up prices on everything from cars to groceries.

The price hike has hit everyone, with wage increases for most workers so far not keeping up with inflation, according to the AP. But they have particularly affected low-income households.

The main reason for the increase in heating bills this winter is the recent surge in energy product prices after they fell to multi-year lows in 2020, according to reports. Demand has simply grown faster than production as the economy comes to life after closures caused by the coronavirus.

Natural gas in the United States, for example, hit its highest price since 2014 and is up about 90% from last year, according to the AP. The wholesale price of heating oil, meanwhile, has more than doubled in the past 12 months.

Just over one in five Americans have had to cut back or forgo basic necessities, such as medicine or food, to pay an energy bill in at least one of the past 12 months, according to a survey conducted in September by the US Census Bureau.

Love Chapel, for its part, saw an increase in the number of people needing help with utilities earlier this year, but has since leveled off, Daugherty said.

The nonprofit has a program in which it will match utility payments up to a certain amount that are made during the months of the moratorium, but few people – usually around 10 or less – take advantage.

“I would love if we could get a lot more people to do this because it’s a creative way to stretch their dollars and it lessens the problem in the spring when these utilities run out,” Daugherty said.

But only time will tell how much more expensive utilities will be in the colder months, if at all. If the winter ends up being colder than expected, heating bills could climb higher.

“What that (increase) looks like right now, we don’t know,” Taylor said. “But it is alarming and concerning.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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