More people eligible for help paying utility bills

Because of COVID-19, people with higher incomes are eligible for energy relief this year, and there also is more time to apply for assistance, Tri-County Opportunities Council reports.

Which is good, because the need is greater.

The office has received hundreds of calls every day recently during the first week it is accepting applications for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps low-income households cover a utility bill payment.

The agency recently received 364 calls on a Monday and 289 on a Tuesday, LIHEAP Program Director Tammy Saenz said.

The deadline to apply for the program, which usually helps around 7,500 people a year, is next June 30 or until funds are exhausted, and LIHEAP gross income eligibility has increased from 150% of the federal poverty level to 200%.

That means that total household income for the 30 days before the application date cannot exceed $2,127 for a one-person household; $2,873, two; $3,620, three; $4,367, four; $5,113, five; and $5,860, six.

Extra funding was allocated in the wake of the pandemic, which caused the office to be closed during its busiest time, in March and April, Saenz said.

“I don’t see COVID slowing down anytime soon, and it has affected a lot of people,” she said. “There are people with wonderful jobs that got let go because of COVID, and their bills keep going up. It’s affected everybody.”

Households in need of assistance, especially those with disconnection notices or high past-due balances, are encouraged to apply, and propane customers are strongly encouraged to apply to get their tanks filled in August, when fuel prices are at their lowest.

It can also be a good idea to wait until the winter months, when heating bills go up, Saenz said.

“There’s enough money to go around,” she said. “We have no clue what this winter is going to be like.”

Open enrollment for the Percentage of Income Payment Plan also is underway. PIPP is designed to help clients pay their own bill with a manageable budget bill.

Eligibility for this program includes being within the LIHEAP guidelines and using a participating utility company, such as Ameren, ComEd, and Nicor. Applications will be taken on a first-come, first-served basis until next March 31, or until funds are exhausted.

LIHEAP applications will be taken in person, by appointment only, at all satellite offices or remotely through mail, fax or email.

Tri-County is also upgrading to a more secure website to help people online; it should be ready around September.

Other COVID relief programs are available, including aid for housing, health or food assistance, and transportation.

Those who are at higher health risk should consider applying through the mail.

Tri-County offers a variety of assistance programs in Bureau, Carroll, LaSalle, Lee, Marshall, Ogle, Putnam, Stark, and Whiteside counties.

Call Tri-County Opportunities Council Energy Department at 800-323-5434 for more information.

The Rock Falls office will accept appointments from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Call 815-625-7830 or 800-323-5434 to make an appointment, or visit the website at tcochelps.org for other locations, dates and times for LIHEAP applications at the agency’s satellite offices. Walk-ins will not be accepted.