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RI expediting winter heating aid after delays

Erika Niedowski, Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- Applications for a federal program that provides winter heating assistance to low-income households in Rhode Island are being processed on an expedited basis after weeks of delays caused by software glitches, the state official overseeing the effort said Friday.

Marion Gold, administrator of the Office of Energy Resources, said her office distributed $300,000 to the state's community action programs so their staffs can work overtime to process applications for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Rhode Island was about a month behind in opening the program because of problems related to a change in software programs, and some residents were left without heating oil.

"We've been working very hard to get the money out the door," Gold said.

She said her office has also disbursed more than $100,000 in "crisis funding" this week to the community agencies to help the residents who are most in need.

"People who are without oil are at the top of the list," she said.

Members of a community organization that works with low-income individuals protested the delays at the Statehouse on Friday, singing modified carols including "I'm Dreaming of a Warm Christmas."

"This isn't just about a computer glitch, this is about real people suffering," said Camilo Viveiros, an organizer with the George Wiley Center.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who met briefly with the protesters in the hallway outside his office, said the software problems have been fixed and that the assistance is going out.

"We're not purposefully making mistakes," he told them. "I'm on your side."

Rhode Island has been allocated more than $22 million in LIHEAP funding this year. Last year, the program helped about 32,000 households.

Millions were left over last year because of the mild winter, Gold said, and the $300,000 the state directed to the community action programs for extra staffing came out of what went unused. The carryover can be used this winter.