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Last Minute Deal Fires Up Emergency Heat Assistance Fund

December 16, 2011

LANSING, Mich. - In Michigan, you can typically count on a white Christmas – but whether or not it's a warm Christmas for thousands of seniors and low-income residents came right down to the wire this week.

Michigan has $90 million in a fund collected by utility companies for emergency heating assistance, but it is tied up in court. Consequently, on the last day of the 2011 state legislative session, lawmakers agreed on a stopgap measure creating a temporary assistance fund, while a longer-term solution is worked out.

Lisa Dedden Cooper, director of advocacy for AARP Michigan, says it was critical that lawmakers stepped in to protect the thousands of people who rely on assistance from these programs in difficult times.

"So many seniors are on a fixed income. But here in Michigan in particular, we will have the cost of heating a home fluctuate a lot. It fluctuates because of the changes in energy costs, and it fluctuates because of our weather."

State law prohibits utility companies from turning off the heat for those 65 and over from November to March, but even in those situations, seniors are still faced with paying the full amount for their winter bills starting in April.

The Vulnerable Household Warmth Fund, to be created under the legislation, is just a temporary fix for this winter, in Dedden Cooper's view. She urges lawmakers to continue to address the ongoing needs of seniors and other at-risk groups.

"What is the mechanism for this to move into the future? And into the future, how do we want to have a sustainable emergency assistance program?"

Under the terms of the deal, $58 million will be made available this winter to help people with heating costs.

Mona Shand, Public News Service - MI