Unfortunate Nevadans Not Tapping Utility Bill Relief Fund

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Most of a $17.5 million fund that's supposed to help poor Nevadans pay their utility bills hasn't been tapped because many people don't know about the assistance program - now in its third year.

"We've tried the traditional methods ... to let people know we had lots of money to help lots of people ... but it didn't do the job," said Linda Mercer, energy assistance program manager for the Nevada Welfare Division.

"This means life and death for some people," said Richard Sevigny, who works with the Clark County Community Resources Management Department. Sevigny is teaming up with the state to get the word out about the program in the coming weeks, including an effort to train county and Las Vegas offices on the basics of the program.

Since late 2001, Nevadans have paid a few extra cents on their power and gas bills every month. The "universal energy charge" supports the state-managed program for the poor created by the 2001 Legislature.

Though up to 200,000 people statewide might qualify for the program, Mercer said only about 7,000 have signed up this year. They've used about $4.4 million of the $17.5 million the program has collected.

The effort to get the money in the hands of those who need it also includes an English- and Spanish-language ad campaign that began last week. Since then, applications have tripled, going from an average of 40 a day to 120 a day.

Assemblyman David Goldwater, D-Las Vegas, one of the principal sponsors of the 2001 bill that led to the program, said the program shouldn't have taken off so slowly. He said he was assured last year that "people were starting to take advantage of the program and that it was going to be working."

To get the help, a person has to be at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, which ranges from $1,163 monthly gross income for one person to $2,356 for four people.

Mercer hopes spending will jump to $7.8 million next year, which would help about 13,000 people.

"We're here, we're geared up, we have a lot of money and want to serve the households in most need," she said."