The line of people seeking help with winter heating bills is as long as it was last year, but there's only half as much money, the Benton-Franklin Community Action Committee reports.
It's a problem the agency often faces when cold weather arrives. But Congress usually approves more money in January for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.
This year, Executive Director Judith Gidley isn't so sure. With a new Congress arriving in January and much talk of deficit cutting, the money might not be available.
The help provided low-income households is based on family income, which can be up to $2,297 a month for a family of four. The money goes straight to the utility company and is put toward the bill.
Gidley said her agency is seeing more people who have never before needed help. Beginning this year, those applying fill in forms online if they prefer -- so those with jobs can apply too. Applicants used to have to call on a certain day and wait for an hour or more sometimes to get an appointment. Now appointments are chosen by a lottery system.
"I didn't think that was fair for those at work and (who) couldn't stay on the phone for an hour," Gidley said.
The CAC also mails the application to seniors who had the help last year. Gidley said most will need it again.
"They may be 72 years old and their income isn't changing -- their power bill is -- but their income isn't," she said.
The utilities also raise money to help their customers in need. The Helping Hands program lets a power company's customers donate to help their neighbors.
Benton PUD office workers are trying to raise awareness about the program this year by adding a link to a paper chain for every dollar donated in December and are hoping the chain will grow to cover the walls of PUD headquarters. Last year, PUD customers donated more than $35,000.
"As in any community, we have people that sometimes need a little extra help," said spokeswoman Karen Miller.
PUD customers can make a one-time donation or ask that a certain amount be added to their monthly bill. The donations are tax deductible, and the programs also are offered by other utilities.
People can apply for either LIHEAP or Helping Hands online at bfcac.org or pick up an application at 710 and 720 W. Court St. in Pasco, or apply at their utility company.