SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) -- South Dakota has received slightly fewer applications from residents seeking help to pay heating bills than it did last year, likely the result of tightened eligibility requirements and recent mild weather, officials said.
Eligibility for the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the amount of help paying heat bills is based on household size and income, heat source and location in the state. The program makes payments directly to the utility company for natural gas, propane, electricity or fuel oil.
David Gall, LIHEAP program administrator for the South Dakota Department of Social Services, said cutbacks in federal funding over the past few years have left states trying to strike a balance between serving more households with smaller checks or fewer households with more assistance.
This year, South Dakota households with income up to 175 percent of the federal poverty level can qualify. The limit for a single-person household is $19,548, and a family of four with an annual income of $40,338 or less would qualify.
The state's level last year was 200 percent of the poverty level.
Brandon Avila, spokesman for the Washington-based advocacy group Campaign for Home Energy Assistance, said the average one-time payment for families across the country is $200 to $300.
"So you're looking at just a bridge to get them over those couple tough months that they obviously face when it's either really hot or really cold," he said.
The state Department of Social Services had received 23,470 applications as of last week. At the same time last year, it had received 25,744 applications.
So far, South Dakota has received $16.2 million in LIEAP funding for the fiscal year. It's projected the state will receive about $17.5 million, the same amount that was allocated last year, according to the department.
Under LIHEAP, natural gas and electric bills are paid for meter readings between Oct. 1 and May 15. Fuel oil and propane costs are covered for deliveries between July 1 and April 30. Available money is provided on a first-come basis to applicants.
In South Dakota, seven Native American tribes administer their own LIEAP programs: Cheyenne River Sioux, Lower Brule Sioux, Oglala Sioux, Rosebud Sioux, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, Standing Rock Sioux and Yankton Sioux.
Carol Muller, Minnehaha County's director of human services, said the county has an additional program to help residents with overdue utility bills, but it's open only to families at 100 percent of the poverty level and is considered a last resort.
Minnehaha has spent nearly $136,000 so far this year on the assistance, which covers bills for heat, electric, water and sewer that are typically 60 or 90 days past due. It has about $14,000 left in its budget for the year.
"You have to have disconnects before the county steps in," Muller said. "The county's considered to be last resort. We refer a tremendous number of people to the LIHEAP program."
Avila said the federal program that started in 1981 targets three major categories of vulnerable populations — the elderly, the disabled and households with children under 5.
Congress' commitment to the program has dropped from $5.1 billion in the 2010 fiscal year to about $3.5 billion this year.
"We can't reach every eligible household," he said. "Even at $5.1 billion, which is the highest we've gotten, it still only served one in four households that are eligible. Once the funds run out, they run out."
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