Associated Press : 8:15 a.m. CDT, July 22, 2011
Looking at the money it expected to have to help Illinois' poor stay cool this summer and warm in the winter that follows, the cash-poor state government decided back in the spring that people would have to go it alone in the hotter months.
State officials said they had no choice — they expect a drastic decrease in federal funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. But they don't have the money to make up for it and don't want to run short during a long, cold Illinois winter when the demand for help with bills is far greater.
That decision has left potentially tens of thousands of the state's poor without the extra money they need to keep their power on just as the worst heat wave in years hits the region. People such as Cynthia Littlefield.
The 52-year-old woman lives with her husband and 11- and 3-year-old daughters in Paxton, about 35 miles north of Champaign. She lost her job in late 2009, and the family last year counted on the $300 the LIHEAP provided over the summer to help pay its electric bill.
Now they owe $198 she says they can't afford.
"This is going to be a new thing, and it's very scary, especially with the little ones, you know?" Littlefield said Wednesday.
Almost 70,000 households received help from the state with electric bills they couldn't afford last summer, drawing $10.4 million from the fund, according to the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. The much larger winter portion of the program used $217.4 million to help 421,000 households with their heating bills.
The department is still waiting for a federal budget to be passed to find out how much money it will get, but even in the best case scenario it still expects a 60 percent cut. And Illinois' multibillion-dollar budget deficit means the state has nothing to spare.
"With the winter months in Illinois, it's just critical that we provide some type of assistance to help heat programs across Illinois, and that's been the top priority," DCEO spokeswoman Marcelyn Love said.
The department, she said, has no plans to change course, even with the heat wave.
Many Illinois residents who have relied on LIHEAP funds in past summers are surprised to learn that they aren't available this year.
"We just had clients here today asking about it, thinking we were still doing the program," Darlene Kloeppel, who is social services director at the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, said Tuesday. The commission distributes LIHEAP money in the county.
While she doesn't have many alternatives to recommend to them, in some cases she might try to refer them to organizations that offer other types of help that might free up money to help cover utility bills.
"For example, if they're able to get free food they might be able to pay their utility bills," she said.
Organizations like AARP would like to see Illinois' utilities, particularly the two largest, Ameren and Commonwealth Edison, help bridge that gap. Though it's still waiting for Gov. Pat Quinn's approval, the General Assembly in May passed legislation allowing them to raise their rates to help pay for infrastructure improvements, AARP Associate State Director Scott Musser said.
"Now when it comes time for people to start paying their summer energy bills, they're not helping with that," Musser said.
Ameren has its own fund to help some people who don't qualify for LIHEAP money, but it's very limited, spokesman Leigh Morris said. The utility, which has 1.2 million customers in the state, has no plans to offer other money but will in some cases work out payment plans, he said.
Commonwealth Edison did not return calls from The Associated Press.
Ameren doesn't turn off power when temperatures are in the mid 90s or above, or when heat advisories are in effect, as they are now for much of the state, he said. But if your power was turned off two weeks ago, the utility isn't going to turn it back on because of excessive heat.
"No, we're not going to reconnect," he said.
AARP, Musser said, is also eager to see implementation of legislation signed into law this year that would take some LIHEAP money and put it into a program that would help people pay a little on their bills every month rather than wait until they're in trouble. AARP thinks that would help avoid situations where people are so far behind that power is cut off. Turning it back on is typically very expensive, Musser said.
"A lot of what we see LIHEAP go into now is emergency reconnections; that would drain it," he said.
In Chicago, Mary Ware says she and her son and daughter could certainly use the help with the $650 they owe Commonwealth Edison.
She says the utility has given her a 30-day reprieve but she isn't sure how they'll pay the bill after that. With diabetes and high blood pressure, the possibility of no power and no way to run the fan she says barely helps her to keep cool makes her worry.
"It's very hot," Ware said. "It's miserable."