For some Macon and Bibb County residents, winter may feel a little colder this year.
The Macon-Bibb County Economic Opportunity Council announced Wednesday that it will be suspending the start of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program until further notice, citing a lack of funds.
Jimmie Samuel, the agency’s executive director, said the program, which helps qualifying low-income families pay their heating bills, is being delayed across the state because Congress has yet to pass a budget allocating the funds at the state level.
“The federal funds have not been appropriated,” Samuel said. “We wanted to get the word out to people who are seeking assistance. As soon as we get an update, we will let you know.”
So far, Georgia has received $18 million under the existing continuing resolution for the budget, and locally, the EOC has received about $445,000. Those funds were distributed to about 1,000 homebound and low-income elderly households in Bibb County during November.
The program to help other low-income residents in the county was scheduled to begin Thursday, but Samuel said his office has been forced to delay the start of the program, and he’s uncertain when it will begin.
Samuel said he is “fairly confident” the funds will come through eventually, but there’s no way to guess a timetable because it depends on Congress. Because Congress awards the money to the state, which then distributes it to community agencies, Samuel said no one in Georgia is able to operate the program right now.
Samuel and Lonnie Miley, president of the EOC’s board of directors, said they’ve received hundreds of calls asking when the program would begin. Samuel and Miley urged residents to contact the offices of Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson and Rep. Austin Scott to ask for their help in getting the federal budget approved.
Miley said it’s a bad time for funding to become an issue, because many people have already been struggling trying to pay their energy bills during an unusually long-lasting summer in a continued economic downturn.
“We know a lot of people are affected, and the need is probably greater than last year,” said Miley, also a Macon City councilman. “It can be devastating to a lot of people. With the holidays coming up, if (Congress) doesn’t release the funds, we’re going to have a lot of people cold and in the dark.”
Samuel said even when the funds do finally come through, his office will receive only an additional $408,000, about half the total his office got last year. He said his office expects to help a total of 2,500 families once the remaining funds come through. He said other EOC programs may also be affected the longer Congress waits.
Samuel noted that it’s not just local residents who will be hurt by the delay. Because the EOC takes the bill of a low-income household and pays it directly to the utility company, those companies themselves will be losing out on those payments.
Konswello Monroe, spokeswoman for Georgia Power, said the company knows the funds are delayed but expects them to be re-instated at some point.
“It’s just a delay,” she said. “The funds are beneficial for many of our customers to help pay their bills.”
Monroe said customers being affected by the delay should contact the power company to set up payment arrangements. She said some customers may also qualify for Project Share, which is run through the Salvation Army, in which Georgia Power customers can donate money to help others in need pay their bills.
Miley and Samuel described the program as not being an entitlement, since those who receive assistance are screened and must be able to prove that they qualify for it. Samuel said that just because people have received assistance in the past doesn’t mean they automatically would qualify for it this year.
Miley called upon all elected city and county officials to urge their constituents to contact their members of Congress, and Samuel said the community as a whole needs to take action.
“People are hurting,” Samuel said. “Not enough folks seem to be giving a damn. That’s a real concern.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.