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State’s power bill assistance program goes dark

Updated Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011 | 5:38 p.m.

The state has turned off the lights on its program to help Nevadans keep theirs on.

A state program that helps thousands of poor families with their utility bills has temporarily run out of money.

The Energy Assistance Program, funded by a surcharge on electricity bills and the federal government, ran out of cash in late September, said Miki Allard, spokeswoman for the Division of Welfare and Supportive Services.

The program will not resume its work until early November, when money collected from NV Energy customers is next scheduled to be turned over to the state.

Federal money for the program, already projected to be greatly reduced, has not passed Congress. State officials were unsure when Congress will appropriate money, or how much it will be.

“We will process as many applications as we have money for,” Allard said. “Then we’ll have to stop. It’ll be like that, probably, throughout the year.”

Karen Ross, community relations manager for NV Energy and chairwoman of the state’s Low Income Advisory Assistance Group, said: “There’s just a lot of lingering uncertainty about the level of funding and the timing of funding.”

The state’s Energy Assistance Program is part of the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, which has become a point of disagreement in the federal spending debate between Democrats and Republicans.

Ross said NV Energy is trying to help customers while the program is suspended. “The company is doing everything we can do to bridge that gap for people, if possible,” she said.

Applications for assistance have risen in Nevada, with its highest-in-the-nation unemployment. But the state has had to limit both the size of the payments to offset utility bills, and cap the number of people it serves because of the federal cuts and lack of state money to make up the difference.

In 2011, 32,000 Nevada families qualified for the benefit. In 2012, the program will be capped at 25,000 families.

The Nevada Legislature did not pass a bill which would have raised the surcharge on electricity bills, the so-called universal energy charge, said Jon Sasser, an advocate for social services in Nevada.

Clark County is not a primary provider of utility assistance, referring those in need to other agencies like HELP of Southern Nevada, United Way and Lutheran Social Services, a county spokesman said.

Christy McGill, director of a rural Nevada nonprofit, Healthy Communities Coalition, said her group is debating whether to use limited resources to provide more food for families, or help keep the electricity on.

“This is really going to start to unravel our safety nets,” she said.

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