Dec. 31, 2003 – Many V.I. residents who've relied on the Human Services Department to help pay their energy bills in times of financial distress will have to look elsewhere for help in 2004. Effective Feb. 1, major funding to support the department's Energy Crisis Assistance Program will no longer be available.
Human Services Commissioner Sedonie Halbert says that, come February, the department will only be able to help low-income elderly and disabled individuals with payment of their electricity and gas bills.
In 2003, the ECAP helped more than 3,500 households pay their utility bills. Of those households, the majority were neither elderly nor disabled. According to program records for September 2003, fewer than 40 percent of the 90 households who received assistance during the month were elderly or disabled. While figures weren't available for the entire year, Ermin S. Boschulte, Human Services financial programs administrator, said that the September numbers were consistent with figures for the rest of the year.
The ECAP had relied on funding from the V.I. Energy Office, which provided $200,000 annually to the program, administered since 1987 by Human Services.
The decision to cancel the funding was made by the Energy Office in consultation with the Planning and Natural Resources Department. Victor Somme III, Energy Office director, says the decision to close out the funding was made after years of review. "It's not like we woke up one day and decided to end the program," Somme said.
Although the ECAP subsidies provided by the Energy Office are not federal funds, Somme said, his agency still must follow mandates from the U.S. Department of Energy. Ultimately it was determined that funding the ECAP was an "inappropriate use of funds," since the bill-paying program did not promote energy conservation or efficiency as stipulated by federal program guidelines.
According to Somme, Human Services was alerted approximately 18 months ago that the bill-paying program would eventually be phased out. At that point, the ECAP shifted its focus to educating clients about energy conservation and instituted a pilot program to retrofit households with energy-saving appliances. The program also provided in-home energy audits for clients to ensure that their water heaters and other appliances were operating efficiently.
While he's "very saddened" by the cancellation of funding, Somme said, the program could not be justified under federal guidelines.
The loss of funding will severely impact the number of households that DHS can serve, Halbert said, and in the event of a shortfall, the department may request a special allocation from the Office of Management and Budget. With the governor's veto of the fiscal year 2004 budget last week, she said it's impossible to say whether additional funding will be available.
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