Warm winter not cooling demand for energy assistance

A warmer-than-expected winter is slowly bringing down the cost of heating with natural gas, but don’t expect that to make Mike Coffman feel any better.

Coffman, who has been disabled for more than a year because of an automobile accident and other physical problems, thinks his gas service will be shut off by the end of next month because he can’t pay the bills.

“I keep my furnace at 55 (degrees) and I’m not using as much gas, but it’s costing me twice as much,” the Lecompton resident said. “I don’t know what people are going to do.”

Jeanette Collier, director of East Central Kansas Economic Opportunity Corp., is working to help Coffman and others like him.

“We were meeting last week probably about every hour each day with people who were needing utility assistance,” she said.

Customers are seeking help with their bills although gas costs have dropped in part thanks to the mild winter weather, said George Minter, vice president of corporate communications at Aquila, the company that supplies natural gas to the Lawrence area.

Mike Coffman, of Lecompton, has reached the limit of assistance for his utility bills from ECKAN. Coffman is disabled from injuries resulting from a car accident and cannot work. He is pictured with his dog Butch.

Gas prices on the wholesale market have decreased about 9 percent from mid-December’s record high of about $15 per 1,000 cubic feet, he said.

“The bills weren’t as high as they could have been, and we’re glad of that,” Minter said.

The average residential bill for gas usage received in January for December was $224, Minter said. That average dropped to $194 a month later, he said.

Coffman was hit with a $303 gas bill in January followed by a February bill that was more than $200. He received $300 in assistance from ECKAN to pay the first bill – reaching the agency’s limit for assistance – and cannot pay his latest bill.

The so-called “cold weather rule,” which restricts when utility firms can shut off service for nonpayment during the winter, expires at the end of March. Without more assistance, Coffman expects his gas to be shut off.

Coffman has a wood-burning stove in his house, but because of problems with his shoulders he has been unable to haul wood. Coffman, who’s known for serving his “road kill stew” at the April 15 tax festivities at the downtown Lawrence post office, said he injured one of his shoulders trying to move a deer carcass onto the back of his truck.

“It’s just been a nightmare and it’s getting worse,” he said.

ECKAN gets money for gas bill assistance from the Warm Hearts program, a Lawrence-based direct-mail campaign. Like Coffman, many others who have received assistance from ECKAN are at their $300 limit, Collier said.

ECKAN is referring people to other programs such as the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP) under the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.

KCP&L offers help

Thanks to an $88,000 grant, the East Central Kansas Economic Opportunity Corp. will offer a residential energy conservation program.
The grant from KCP&L will allow ECKAN to help homeowners with projects such as ceiling and wall insulation, furnace equipment, gas or electric hot water tanks, air infiltration and smoke detector installation.
Families must be KCP&L customers and meet income guidelines. For information, call Don Hobbs at (785) 242-6413 or toll-free at (888) 833-0832.

LIEAP expects to receive from 5 percent to 10 percent more applications for assistance this year than last year, said Dennis Priest, assistant director for programs in the SRS economic employment support section. The program this year has paid $2.6 million in assistance, or an average of $200 per household, he said. Since mid-January about 29,000 applications have been received.

“We’ve really just begun to scratch the surface of the applications received,” he said.

Last year LIEAP received about 50,000 applications, Priest said. The program is funded by a federal grant, and this year’s grant of about $15 million is similar to what was received last year, he said. Priest expects all the grant money to be used.