HELENA — Many Montanans have needed extra help to pay their utility bills since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and that means programs that provide that help have had to expand what they do.
“We know that there are many low-income families that are struggling right now to pay utility costs, whether that be the rising propane cost or paying their water bill,” said Sara Loewen, Intergovernmental Human Services Bureau chief for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS).
State leaders point to data from the federal government, predicting home heating bills will likely increase by 30% — and possibly by 50% — compared to last winter. That’s due to expected higher prices for fuels like natural gas, electricity, and propane.
DPHHS has already offered the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which covers some of the cost for eligible households’ winter heating bills. This year, they’re also launching a Low Income Home Water Assistance Program (LIWEAP), which follows the same model for water bills.
“Having this program really offers the department a chance to provide assistance to help people become more self-sustaining,” Loewen said.
Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration says they’ve found many Montana households are 60 or more days past due on their water bills, by anything from $50 to $1,000. A total of $3.8 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act and Consolidated Appropriations Act will fund LIWEAP.
ARPA money is also temporarily increasing the available benefits for LIHEAP. About $14 million will go toward higher payments for the lowest-income households and for older people, those with disabilities and people with young children. It will also support DPHHS’ Weatherization Assistance Program, which helps eligible households improve their homes’ efficiency and reduce their energy costs.
Another support program is Energy Share of Montana, a private nonprofit that helps Montanans experiencing an energy emergency.
“Usually when people apply for Energy Share, they have a disconnect notice or a past-due notice, or maybe their propane tank is really low,” said executive director Rachel Haberman. “So they’re right down to the wire where they absolutely have to have some money.”
Haberman says about half of the people who applied for Energy Share assistance last year had COVID-related situations, and the average amount each of those households needed was 46% higher than the year before.
This year, Haberman says they’ve had more people looking for help early in the year. In 2020, there were moratoriums that limited when someone’s utilities could be disconnected during the height of the pandemic. That protection hasn’t been available this year.
“Right now, we’re able to keep up with it, so we really appreciate the support we have from people all across Montana,” said Haberman.
Energy Share solicits donations, including through envelopes in Montanans’ electricity bills.
Applications for all of these programs are handled through Montana’s ten local Human Resource Development Councils. If you are interested in applying, you can find more information about which HRDC you should contact here.
The state has created a single application for LIHEAP, LIWEAP and weatherization assistance, which are available based on a household’s income. For example, a family of four making less than $52,465 would be eligible for LIHEAP and LIWEAP.
Energy Share considers each application individually, and it has more flexibility in the income levels it can serve. However, people are generally only eligible for assistance once every ten years or so.
DPHHS says about 18,500 households are typically enrolled in LIHEAP. Energy Share usually helps about 2,500 families a year.