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Cold and broke? Apply for energy assistance

Janice Renner, energy assistance coordinator at Mahube-Otwa in Detroit Lakes, holds some of the thank you cards the agency has recieved from people helped through the program. Nathan Bowe / Tribune

Enjoying this early taste of winter? Looks like it might be especially cold and snowy this year. Time to talk Mahube-Otwa Community Action about energy assistance help.

Whether you rent or own your home, you can receive from $200 to $1,400 to help pay your heating bills, and up to $600 more later in emergency situations, if you qualify.

You can also get your faulty furnace repaired or replaced.

"Applications are available," said said Janice Renner, energy assistance coordinator at Mahube-Otwa in Detroit Lakes. In fact, the agency has already sent out about 7,000 pre-applications to people who qualified for help last year. And nearly 4,000 of those applications have been filled out and returned as of Thursday, she said. "They're coming fast and furious," she said. "About 80 percent come in before December."

Whether you qualify for help is based on household size, income, fuel type, and past energy usage.

Qualifying annual incomes are based on the last three months gross income, and range from $6,250 if you live alone to $10,096 for a family of three to $15,865 for a family of six.

Applications were sent out this year to everyone who qualified for energy assistance last year, Renner said. "It's really a good program, I wish everybody that is income-eligible would apply," she added. "It's supposed to be a colder-than-normal winter this year."

The state received about $102 million in federal energy assistance money this year, and it's treated as one big statewide pool. "It's based on need—it's first come, first served," she said. "So it's always good to be logged into the program (by applying). That's kind of how our program works."

It will greatly speed the process if you make sure your application is complete before submitting it, including income verification info and account information from your fuel provider. "Otherwise we have to send them a letter, and it slows down the process," Renner said.

You can apply online or in person at any of the five Mahube-Otwa offices — in DL, Mahnomen, Park Rapids, Wadena and Fergus Falls. Call if you have a special need or questions.

The number is (218) 847-1385 in Detroit Lakes; (218) 739-3011 in Fergus Falls; (218) 935-5022 in Mahnomen; (218) 732-7204 in Park Rapids; and (218) 632-3600 in Wadena.

The state expects to receive about $10 million more before the season is over, said Minnesota Commerce Secretary Mike Rothman, whose agency administers the program.

He said the program is an essential safety net for low-income Minnesotans who struggle to pay their energy bills and stay warm throughout the winter.

"Year after year, Minnesota's Energy Assistance Program has helped needy families with their heating bills during the winter," said Rothman, whose agency administers the program. "These federal funds provide an essential safety net to protect vulnerable Minnesotans from losing heat during the coldest months of the year. As temperatures drop and heating bills rise, we want Minnesotans to know that help is available from the state's Energy Assistance Program."

Rothman noted that the U.S. Department of Energy expects that heating costs will rise this winter as a result of colder temperatures and higher energy prices, especially for heating oil, propane and natural gas. Even modest increases in heating use and energy prices can be a financial challenge for low-income households.

All types of fuel are covered: Natural gas, heating oil, propane, electricity, wood, and biofuels.

In most cases, electronic payments go directly to utility companies and heating fuel vendors. Wood vendors receive a check after the wood is delivered.

The program served over 126,000 Minnesota households last year, with an average grant of about $520. Some of these households also received help to address no-heat crisis situations and repair broken heating systems.

In addition to applying for heating assistance, low-income Minnesotans are encouraged to contact their utility and seek protection under the state's Cold Weather Rule.

The Cold Weather Rule, in effect from Oct. 15 to April 15, protects residential utility customers from having their heat shut off.

Customers must contact their utility to establish and maintain a monthly payment plan. Households that need to reconnect for winter should contact their utility now to take advantage of the payment options.

Minnesotans who use delivered fuels such as propane, fuel oil or wood to heat their homes are not covered by the Cold Weather Rule, but they are eligible for financial help from the Energy Assistance Program.

More information on shut-off protection and the Cold Weather Rule is available at the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission website or by calling 651-296-0406 or 800-657-3782.