Community

A Louisville Metro Council committee is looking into concerns that deliberate and systemic bias pollute the process of allocating funds associated with the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, as more than $300,000 allocated for the program this year went unused.

The council’s committee on intergovernmental affairs earlier this week heard from representatives of the city’s department of community services and the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, a nonprofit housing advocacy organization, regarding claims that inequities exist within the program.

LIHEAP provides residents struggling to pay utility bills with funds to ensure their heat and electricity are not disconnected during winter months. In fiscal year 2015, the program assisted nearly 20,000 Louisville residents, said Darrell Aniton, a representative of the department of community services.

The program is income-based, and residents can qualify if they earn up to 130 percent of the area’s poverty threshold, Aniton said. That means a family of three could earn no more than $2,100 monthly to get assistance through the federal program.

Qualifying residents can receive up to $400 to help pay utility bills during a crisis phase, which lasts from January to March, Aniton said. In fiscal year 2015, officials disbursed nearly $4.2 million in assistance funds in Louisville.

But the program was allocated more than $4.8 million for the year, meaning city officials left more than $300,000 on the table after administrative costs. That money was returned to the federal program.

Concerns about LIHEAP disbursements are multifaceted, said Cathy Hinko, executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition. High among them is that not all the money that assist the city’s poorest residents is being utilized.

“We’re very interested in furthering our ability to spend all the money we get,” she said.

Hinko pointed out other problems that, if addressed, could create a more robust system for assisting the city’s most vulnerable residents. For instance, she said the ability for residents with bulk heating sources, like propane, to “self assert” that they need assistance is a sharp contrast to what residents with metered services must do to obtain assistance.

Residents with metered services, who predominantly live in urban areas, must present a “brown bill,” or a notice of disconnection, before being considered for LIHEAP funds, Hinko said.

Considering that nearly 43 percent of the state’s black population lives in Louisville, an urban area, that could also lead to claims of racial disparity, she said.

Timing is also an issue. The period of LIHEAP fund allocation known as the crisis phase usually concludes at the end of March. That means residents with metered services who receive their bills mid-month would be cut off from applying for assistance in the weeks leading up to the end of the crisis phase, Hinko said, as their bills would not yet be considered delinquent.

That shorter “heating season” would not apply to residents using propane, who have the option of applying for funds up until the cut-off day, Hinko said.

 

Metro Councilman David Yates, a District 25 Democrat and chair of the intergovernmental affairs committee, said he is looking forward to addressing the issue on the council before winter sets in and the need for assistance arises again.

“Hopefully we’ll get the ball rolling, and we’ll work to better serve those in most need throughout our community,” he said. “This looks like it will be one that will take a lot of work in the hallways and in special meetings.”

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.