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Software glitches delay RI's heating aid program

Erika Niedowski, Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- Some low-income households have been left without heating oil because software glitches caused delays in the state's launch of a federal energy assistance program, a top state energy official said Monday.

Marion Gold, administrator of the state Office of Energy Resources, said the state didn't realize until last week that problems related to a change in software systems were causing delays in opening the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to applicants.

Gold said that officials have been working around the clock to resolve the problems and that applications, normally sent out in early November, should start going out Tuesday.

"We feel sick about this," Gold said. "We are providing some supplemental emergency funds, so people who are in need can get some oil delivered."

Some households are still facing oil shortages, but no one who is eligible for the program and uses natural gas has had service shut off because of the delays, she said.

Gold said a "personnel issue" had prevented her and other officials from finding out sooner about the impact of the software problems and the seriousness of the delays. She wouldn't elaborate.

Gold said there were "many problems" with the transfer to the new software provided by Hancock Energy Software, based in Framingham, Mass., although the problems have been fixed. A message was left Monday with company CEO Lily Li.

U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, announced last month that the state had been allocated more than $22 million in LIHEAP funding this winter, part of $3.1 billion in program funds released last month by President Barack Obama's administration. Last year, it received $23.2 million in LIHEAP funds, which helped about 32,000 households.

The program has faced cuts in recent years even as more families have struggled to pay skyrocketing home heating costs, particularly in the Northeast.

According to the Office of Energy Resources, the assistance is normally provided from Nov. 1 to March 31 by way of the state's seven community action programs. Residents must be at or below 60 percent of the median state income to qualify.

Joanne McGunagle, executive director of the Comprehensive Community Action Program, which serves Cranston, Scituate and Foster, said the computer glitches prevented her agency from having the data it needed to print renewal applications for last year's program participants. Her agency has the data now, she said, and the applications have been printed and put in envelopes. She's waiting for the state to give the go-ahead to send them out.

"Everybody's anxious. Everybody wants to get the fuel applications out," McGunagle said. "They want to get oil in people's tanks before it gets too cold."

Gold said the state is working with several community action programs that, because of the earlier software problems, don't have the applications ready to send out, including the ones in Providence, the Blackstone Valley and the East Bay. She said the state wants all applications to go out at the same time.

Debbie Clark, of the George Wiley Center community organization, said people are worried about the delays.

"They call all day long, every day," she said. "They're out of oil or they're getting a termination notice."