Cold heats up Walla Walla-area energy needs

Agency offers to match dollars sent to Helpline as ‘energy assistance.'

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WALLA WALLA - With snow, freezing rain and ice, winter announced itself a little ahead of schedule in the Walla Walla Valley.

For some low-income families, the cold snapped budgets already without sufficient elasticity, said heads of social-service agencies.

Unfortunately that includes their own means for dealing with the problem, directors are pointing out.

One local organization is prepared to offer matching funds for donations to help with the situation.

"For every check that is sent to Helpline, with ‘energy assistance' in the memo field, we'll match dollar for dollar, up to $1,500," said Lawson Knight, executive director of Blue Mountain Community Foundation.

Helpline has had about 50 families come in for assistance with utility bills since Nov. 22, some of them facing immediate shutoff notices, said Dan Wilms, executive director of the nonprofit agency. Of those, 23 were referred elsewhere and a few needed help with wood heat.

Helpline has used its limited funds to buy clients a little more time with utility companies, enough to ease them out of immediate termination of energy services.

The timing is bad, Wilms said. The cold weather is setting in early, landing people in a donut-hole of emergency assistance.

With an influx of about $3,000, Helpline could help 60 families at $50 each to keep the energy wolf away from the door, he said. "To get them a few weeks down the line so we can get them into a federal energy assistance program - put a Band-Aid on it."

While officials at Salvation Army say they have been helping people with energy bills throughout the year, other agencies are bound by time lines set up for receiving state and federal energy dollars.

Blue Mountain Action Council will be able to distribute about $300,000 to qualifying families in Walla Walla, Columbia and Garfield counties. However, the money from the Cascade Gas Winter Help Fuel Fund program is just now becoming available. Folks who haven't qualified for assistance through an interview process will have a tougher time than in recent years getting any extra help, noted Bob Castoldi, energy assistance coordinator.

"For two years, we've been able to help everyone who's called, that was stimulus money. But this year we can't afford to help people with shut-off notices."

With state and federal deficit situations, one way to take care of some gaps is to cut entitlement programs and energy help falls under that category, he said.

For BMAC's program, only those who have actually had power cut off will qualify as "crisis" cases, the coordinator said. Those in that situation can be seen at the Catherine Street office beginning Monday.

The situation is compounded by other agencies that are out of energy assistance money, but Castoldi remains cautiously optimistic. "I really think after the first of the year, at least the (federal) contingency fund will be released. I don't think Washington or Oregon is in that mix, but it will filter down."

It is important to remember that people are not getting their power shut off because of the cold snap, but because they haven't been able to pay their utility bills for some time, he added.

The Salvation Army can help some who have received a final notice, said Theresa Henderson, administrative assistant. The agency uses customer-donated money from Pacific Power to help clients, she said. "We do have a set limit of what we can help with. There is only so much we can do ... just enough to stop shutoff."

The Salvation Army office will close its energy assistance program on Dec. 20 to focus on distributing food and Christmas gifts for children to about 300 area families, reopening for normal business on Dec. 27, Henderson said.

For information about making a donation, call Helpline at 529-3377.

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