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Iowa heat bills could double; will winter turn deadly for poor?

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Energy conservation will not save Iowa's poor from a potentially deadly winter, the chief of the state's Bureau of Energy Assistance said Wednesday.

The Iowa Utilities Board is promoting some energy-saving tips for consumers, but people "can only turn the thermostat so low before it affects your health and well-being," said Jerry McKim, whose bureau helps low-income families pay their utility bills.

McKim said federal funding levels for heating assistance are not absorbing rising energy costs, which are expected to be as much as 52 percent higher than last year.

"This is a life-or-death matter," McKim said. "I have serious anxiety about what folks will face this winter."

Last year, the federal government allocated $2.18 billion to help poor families pay their utility bills; $38.7 million went to Iowa, McKim said.

This year President Bush has proposed cutting funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, to about $2 billion.

Unless Congress boosts that figure, there will be "a heck of a lot less" help available for poor people because of higher energy costs, McKim said.

Gov. Tom Vilsack is among several governors sending letters to President Bush and Congress asking for $1.28 billion more to cover the predicted price boom.

But it may not be enough.

The Iowa Utilities Board now estimates that Iowans could pay between 36 percent to 52 percent more than last winter to heat their homes, board spokesman Rob Hillesland said.

If all else fails, people should contact their utility companies or the Bureau of Energy Assistance, Hillesland said.

Last year, the bureau helped about 85,000 families, giving them an average of $317 to pay their energy bills. More than 110,000 eligible families did not seek help, McKim said.

"Contrary to popular myth, low-income families pay their bills," said McKim, adding that people sometimes skip meals to have money for their utilities.

Hillesland said prices in Iowa could be much worse this winter if utility companies weren't prepared. IUB has helped companies stockpile a portion of the energy they'll use this winter - a move that protects consumers from higher prices during the winter, he said.

"That's why Iowa is not forecasting some of the most dire increases we're seeing in other parts of the country," he said.

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