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BPU Frees Up $25 Million to Help Needy Households Pay Their Utility Bills

More than a year after the money was allocated, funds will soon be available for households seeking temporary assistance.

Thirteen months after lawmakers passed a bill setting aside $25 million to help needy households pay their utility bills, the state is expecting the money to be finally available in the next few weeks.

Last week, the state Board of Public Utilities (BPU) decided to have the Affordable Housing Alliance distribute the money. The alliance assists people who have typically paid their gas and electric bills but have fallen behind because of job losses or other family issues.

The state is drawing the $25 million from the societal benefits charge (SBC), a surcharge on most customers’ gas and electric bills. The money will provide utility assistance grants to low- and middle-income households seeking temporary assistance.

Timing Is Everything

Despite the delays in allocating the money, the timing may be opportune. With the Christie administration thinking of scaling back the size of the societal benefits program, money set aside a year ago could help struggling households get back on their feet.

There also is uncertainty about the level of federal funding for low-income energy assistance. On Monday, the Obama administration unveiled its proposed budget, which calls for cutting in half the federal aid to the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP). If adopted, the budget would slash federal aid from $5.1 billion nationwide to $2.5 billion.

Donna Blaze, chief executive officer of the alliance, said her organization sees every day how much the energy assistance program is needed.

The alliance, which also counsels households facing mortgage foreclosure, receives 400 to 600 calls a month from families seeking help with that problem, Blaze said. "Very few people who find themselves in this situation have only one financial problem," she said.

The alliance, based in Eatontown, submitted a proposal to the BPU to award a maximum annual household benefit of $1,500, with an estimated award ranging from $500 to $600. The maximum benefit includes a payment of up to $750 for utility, electric and gas.

Blaze said her organization expects to distribute funds to some 20,000 to 25,000 households over the next two years. The alliance will set up a website where people can apply for assistance, but that site will not be available until a contract is signed with the state, she said. People also can apply at the alliance’s home office or one of its affiliates in each county. In addition, the alliance will make applications available via fax, mail, and e-mail.

The new program will not be available to people enrolled in the state’s Universal Service Fund program or the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). It will only be available to people who have a history of regularly paying their utility bills.

Greg Reinert , a spokesman for the BPU, said the money should be on the street very soon after the contract is signed, which should be sometime in the next week. Asked why it took a year to get the program up and running, Reinert replied, "We’re on a different budget calendar than the state legislature."

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