Court ruling delays heating help for poor Michigan residents

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By Sam Inglot
Capital News Service
LANSING—With Michigan’s harsh winter temperatures approaching some $62 million expected Oct. 1 to help poor people pay for heat and electricity remains in limbo.
“What do we do to keep our families safe and keep them from freezing?” said Bev Cassidy, CEO of TrueNorth Community Services, a non-profit community assistance organization.
The delay is due to a July Michigan Court of Appeals ruling that said the Michigan Public Service Commission did not have authority over the money in the Low-Income and Energy Efficiency Fund.
The problem: Language granting the commission authority over the funds was accidentally dropped in 2008 during an energy policy restructuring to remove obsolete references, said Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods.
The fund provides poor families with financial assistance to prevent heat and electric shutoffs and to help improve home energy efficiency.
The ruling followed a June announcement by the commission that nine organizations would receive grants totaling $62 million to help poor families, said Judy Palnau, media and public information specialist for the Michigan Public Service Commission.
“None of that $62 million was made available on Oct. 1 as anticipated,” she said.
The fund comes from annual payments made by utility companies and a small surcharge to Michigan citizens’ energy bills.
Lipton recently proposed a “technical fix” to the problem that would reinstate commission control over the funding. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Energy and Technology. Meanwhile the money remains untouched in a reserve fund.
“With winter fast approaching this has got to be taken care of,” Lipton said. “This legislation would give the commission the statutory authority that they had and then the programs could go forward without interruption, but time is of the essence.”
Cassidy said the delay is another blow to struggling families and has created an unfortunate “perfect storm” as similar federal funding was cut by more than half this year from $300 million to $140 million.
TrueNorth provides heat and energy assistance to 5,600 low-income homes in 11 rural counties: Benzie, Lake, Manistee, Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Mecosta, Missaukee, Newaygo, Osceola and Wexford.
The group has weatherized 120 homes, Cassidy said. It expected to receive $3 million at the start of October.
“Without this funding we are out of any heat and energy funding until the first of the year, so between now and Jan. 1 there will be nothing we can do to help our families,” she said.
The only way the money can be distributed to those in need is if either legislation is adopted or the Commission wins its appeal in the Michigan Supreme Court. Palnau said the appeal was filed Sept. 1.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.

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