Utility companies: Mississippi shortchanged on federal energy assistance funds for low income homes

Print Share on LinkedIn More

Entergy Mississippi

Entergy, which serves four southeastern states, and other utility companies have spent years lobbying for more money for hotter states, where the poverty rate is often high.

After Javone Hartfield’s divorce in 2017, the mother of three found it difficult to pay her electricity bill, which can range from $150 to $200 every month. That’s about 9 percent of her monthly income before taxes.

“I was facing a disconnection in like three weeks,” Hartfield said.

At her townhouse in south Jackson, Hartfield must maintain utilities as a condition of her rental agreement. No power means a potential eviction. She sought help from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a federal program that provides funds to qualified residents, and after jumping over a few administrative hurdles, the program paid her Entergy bill that month in late 2017.

“If I wouldn’t have gotten that help, I probably wouldn’t be in my house right now because I would have had to move in with someone else,” she said. “It was more so stressful because I had went from paying my portion of the bills (while married), and I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was going to be financially.”

Javone Hartfield, 36, with her children, Anthony, 22, Eric, 16 and Angelina, 15 in 2017.

Right now, the $3.7 billion federal program only serves 12 percent of Mississippians who qualify, those whose households earn under 60 percent of the state’s median income.

The state receives $32.2 million in LIHEAP, which local community action agencies administer. In 2017, the funds helped just 41,243 out of 377,597 eligible families across the state, according to a LIHEAP factsheet.

By comparison, half of qualified residents in New York receive the assistance. That discrepancy can be explained by how Congress decides how much money to send to each state, favoring colder weather states over hotter, Southern states. 

The program is not an entitlement, so the federal dollars are block granted to states and qualified residents must apply to receive the funds.

The cumbersome application process can also partly explain why the program does not reach a large percentage of those eligible.

“Every time I called it was like they didn’t have any available appointments until three months later,” Hartfield said.

Hartfield attends Hinds Community College, where she takes prerequisite courses for a nursing degree. There, she eventually met a liaison who was able to advocate on her behalf and schedule an appointment four days later. Many never get that far.

“Appointments fill up so fast, every time you open up appointments, you’re putting them thirty days out,” said David Knight, executive vice president of the Hinds County Human Resource Agency, the community action agency in the Jackson metro area. “We’re at max capacity now. There’s 20,000 eligible homes in Hinds County. If everyone called today, who’s going to take those phone calls?”

In 2018, Mississippi streamlined the process so that applicants would not have to bring as much documentation, such as a birth certificate, to prove their eligibility. But as the local agencies approved more people for assistance more quickly, the funds ran out about halfway through the year. This year, they’re set to run out by fall, Knight said.

“When we run out, there is no calling anyone else,” Knight said. “The churches, they’re always dried up … Every little penny, to you or I may not be that big of a deal, but to somebody who’s counting pennies, it’s difficult.”

In 2018, Entergy disconnected service to about 13 percent of its customers for nonpayment, though the company does not track how many of these are low-income and would have qualified for LIHEAP.

“We’re talking about having hot water so you can take a shower and go to work,” Knight said.

Of those who lose service, 72 percent pay and get reconnected, which itself comes with a $50 fee. Customers may also be asked to pay an additional deposit, two times the amount of their highest bill. Entergy may waive these fees for low-income customers through an agreement with the Mississippi Department of Human Services.

The community action agencies do maintain an emergency fund so that even when LIHEAP dollars run out, they can still assist someone in a life-threatening emergency, such as a person with medical problems who needs electricity to power an oxygen tank.

Congress does not appropriate enough funds to the program to help all qualified residents, but it also deprioritizes states like Mississippi when deciding how much money to give each state.  

Liz Brister, Entergy’s corporate social responsibility manager, explained that the program began with the purpose of heating homes to protect families from freezing temperatures, so it initially favored cold weather states. Eventually, Congress added more funding to the program and specified that any LIHEAP funding over $2 billion would be allocated to states based on a newer formula that put more emphasis on poverty rates and energy burden — the percentage of a household’s income used on utilities — than on the temperature.

But Congress isn’t following it’s own formula, utility companies contend.

“Instead of those funds flowing the way they’re supposed to flow, Congress is writing an earmark into the bill, saying, ‘Oh, let’s pretend like these extra funds are just like they were before we hit the trigger,'” Brister said. “And so they’re re-appropriating those funds back to the cold weather states instead of letting them flow to Mississippi as they should.”

Chairs of the appropriation subcommittees on Labor, Health and Human Services in the U.S. House and Senate, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-MO, did not return requests for comment Thursday from Mississippi Today.

While Mississippi did receive a $2.5 million or 8 percent LIHEAP increase from 2017 to 2018, the state’s program had previously been cut by one-third since 2010, when it was funded at its highest level.

Companies like Entergy, which serves four southeastern states, and Atmos Energy, a gas company serving nine states mostly in the South, have spent years lobbying for more money for hotter states, where the poverty rate is often high.

But the funding shortfall has garnered little attention.

“We have to educate and reeducate about this lifesaving program,” said Dan Alderson, Atmos Energy manager of customer advocacy. “You know how hot it can get in Mississippi and people can die, especially the elderly and disabled.”

In households with fixed income, such as elderly people living on Social Security payments, utility bills can eat up 12 percent to as high as 40 percent of a person’s monthly income, Alderson said. Wealthier customers may spend just three to five percent of their income on energy, he added.

LIHEAP benefits the energy companies and all customers, too. When Atmos delivers gas to a home and is not paid for that month, it may have to write off the amount. The company will also incur costs when it has to disconnect service to a home. The next time Atmos approaches the regulatory agency, the Public Service Commission in Mississippi, it may cite those unpaid bills as justification for raising its rates.

A photo Javone Hartfield took of her application for energy assistance from the Hinds County Human Resource Agency July 11, 2019 shows that there are no available application appointments.

“This program takes a small portion of that and is able to keep the customer whole, keep the meter running, keep them in a safe and healthy situation,” Alderson said. “Then that gas that they used, and then got paid for through the program, doesn’t get passed along in a rate filing or a rate increase.”

Hartfield still qualifies for the program — she’s in the same $11.29-an-hour hospital receptionist job she had two years prior — and has attempted to apply for LIHEAP this month.

The automated phone system the local office uses now keeps dropping her call, she said.

Hartfield is not at risk of losing her electricity this time, but “if I could get the assistance I know I could get my kids school supplies and send them back to school with something decent to wear.”