MINNEAPOLIS — It's starting to feel like winter out there.
That means it's crunch-time for Tammy Stauffer, the director of energy assistance programs at Community Action Partnership of Hennepin County.
"It has been pretty crazy around here. People have been constantly in our self-service area," Stauffer said, noting the nine buckets of mail her staff still needs to sort through. "The goal is to get through as many applicants as possible."
So far, Stauffer said, almost 10,000 people have filed applications for help with winter heating bills, putting her organization on pace for about 20,000 applications by the end of the 2021-2022 season. That's "absolutely, definitely an increase" compared to last year, according to Stauffer, with the urgency sure to pick up in the frigid months of December, January and February.
Due to a variety of complicated factors, including some related to the pandemic and supply-and-demand, a federal report this fall projected a 49% price hike for natural gas customers in the Midwest, a 69% increase for propane, and a 5% jump for electric.
"I am expecting December to be a big month," Stauffer said. "That's where most of the households will have opened up those bills and seen that sticker shock as to what the costs are."
But there's help available.
American Rescue Plan dollars have bolstered the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which is administered through local Community Action Partnership organizations like the one where Tammy Stauffer works. Grant sizes have increased, and the eligibility pool has expanded in Minnesota to cover households within 60% of the state's median income, as opposed to 50%. This means that a household of four people, making up to $67,765 per year, could qualify for assistance with their heating bills this winter. A household of six, meanwhile, could make up to $89,450 and still qualify.
"We have an increased pool of applicants, increased benefit," Stauffer said. "I think it's a win-win situation for the low-income households."
On top of the energy assistance program, most major utility companies like Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy have their own affordability programs.
"That can really, significantly reduce your bills on a monthly basis," said Annie Levenson-Falk, the executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota, "and even help pay off the past-due bills that a lot of folks have accumulated."
Levenson-Falk also points to some simple steps that everyone can take, like turning down thermostats at night, getting furnaces and boilers serviced, and blocking drafts around windows at home to "keep warm air in and cold air out."
But if you find yourself in need of serious financial help and qualify for the Energy Assistance Program, the state's website can help you figure out where to apply.
With the holidays approaching, Tammy Stauffer of Community Action Partnership of Hennepin County said you shouldn't feel stuck between buying gifts and paying your heating bills.
"Come see us," she said. "You don't have to choose."