Utility Bill Program Shrinking

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) - A state program to help poor people pay
utility bills is getting low on funds, forcing it to limit the amounts it gives to Nevadans in need - just as that need reaches its highest point so far this decade.

The Welfare and Supportive Services Division program has gone from a reserve of $17.5 million four years ago to about $2.4 million. It has been spending more than it has taken in two years in a row, and applications in June were 26 percent higher than in June 2007.

"We're at the other end of the spectrum and ... we've exhausted earlier resources," said Lori Wilson, who oversees policy and budget issues for the energy program. "We have to spread the money a little thinner over a greater population."

Starting this month, the amounts the state will offer are limited based on each applicant's income and the size of the utility bills. Wilson estimates that nearly half of all households getting the benefit could be affected by the new caps.

The program is funded in part by federal grants, but most of the money comes from a small surcharge added to utility bills - the "universal energy charge."

Nearly 30,000 households are seeking help from the state and face a backlog of two months for applications to be answered. Wilson noted that the increased need has not been accompanied by an increase in staff.

Wilson said up to 30 percent of applicants are denied the benefit at present. Most of those who get the assistance are elderly, disabled and living on Social Security benefits. Three-fourths are renters. More than half are at or under the federal poverty level, which is $10,400 for a single person and $26,500 for a family of four.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)