With many Bibb County residents still feeling the effects of a sluggish economy, hundreds lined up Tuesday at St. Paul AME Church -- many of whom had been camping out since Monday -- to seek assistance with their energy bills.
Peggy Johnson, 51, of Macon, works for a local chain restaurant, but said she doesn’t earn enough money to cover her bills. She showed up late Monday afternoon at the church and was the 103rd person to be seen Tuesday by the staff of the Macon-Bibb County Economic Opportunity Council.
“I’ve been having problems with my lights,” Johnson said. “There’s not enough money to cover utilities. ... I’m here just to get assistance. This year, I’m just glad (to get) anything. I appreciate any little bit they give me.”
To qualify for help under the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, residents must have a yearly income that is less than or equal to 60 percent of the state median income.
In a new wrinkle this year, the state and federal government is requiring that those seeking help to also prove their citizenship with a driver’s license or passport.
Those who meet the qualifications turn their energy bill over to the EOC, which pays it on the person’s behalf.
Jimmie Samuel, executive director of the EOC, said the agency can serve roughly half of the people who show up seeking assistance. He said the program benefits the whole community, even those not receiving the assistance.
“The money goes directly to Georgia Power and other utility companies,” he said. “This helps (residents) to pay other bills, to buy groceries. It’s not a negative thing at all.”
This year, the program’s funds were delayed more than a month after Congress delayed in approving the federal budget. When the funds were finally approved, Bibb County received about 40 percent less than it did in 2010, when it got about $2 million.
Samuel said the delay created an even greater need in the community, and that less money means fewer people will get help.
Samuel’s agency received $450,000 in assistance money targeted to help senior citizens in November, and got $574,000 for the current round, which will help people of any age.
Samuel said people usually receive between $310 and $350 in assistance, as mandated by state and federal guidelines.
Macon City Councilman Lonnie Miley, who serves as president of the EOC’s board of directors, told those lined up Tuesday that they need to be more active in the political process by voting. By not taking a more active interest, he said, programs such as the one for energy assistance might disappear.
“I was letting people know that by voting, or lack of voting, it affects these programs, especially when it involves federal funding,” he said. “But the recipients in these programs are also the least likely to vote. This is not an entitlement program. This is done on a year-to-year basis. It depends on Congress whether we can continue with it.”
Miley said he would love to see a line at the polls on Election Day that’s similar in length to the line that awaited the EOC staff at the church Tuesday morning.
“If it was up to me, (receiving assistance) would be tied to whether a person voted or didn’t vote,” he said.
Rose Johnson, 51, of Macon -- no relation to Peggy Johnson -- said she receives disability assistance and needs help paying her utilities.
She said she’s grateful for the assistance.
“I just prayed to God, because I know God is open (to prayers),” she said.
The EOC will have other assistance sessions Wednesday at St. Paul AME, 2501 Shurling Drive; at Union Baptist Church, 1137 Kitchens St. on Jan. 18 and Jan. 20; and Unionville Baptist Church, 3837 Houston Ave. on Jan. 24 and Jan. 25. All of the sessions begin at 7 a.m.
For more information, call the EOC at 750-8689 or 330-6272.
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.