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The number of Niagara County residents requesting assistance with their heating bills this year has quadrupled, Deputy Social Services Commissioner Sharon Sloma told county legislators at a recent meeting.

Applications for the Home Energy Assistance Program have skyrocketed largely because of rising natural gas prices, while the number of applicants for emergency aid to prevent utilities from being shut off has tripled from a year ago.

This year's Niagara County budget contains $3.33 million for the program, all from federal funds.

But in response to howls from the Northeast, federal officials came up with some extra aid last month. At its Feb. 6 meeting, the County Legislature used the additional $46,272 to hire two more caseworkers to remain with the program for as long as the funding lasts.

David Adams, the director of administrative services for the county Social Services Department, said the two new workers probably would be assigned to the Niagara Falls office. The county already employed four full-time and two part-timers worker to handle the program in Niagara Falls. Five other full-time staff members in the Lockport office are assigned to program.

"Both offices are busy; Niagara Falls is swamped," Social Services Commissioner Anthony J. Restaino said.

"We can definitely use them," said Tammy Herman, supervisor of the program's Niagara Falls office. "We have quite a backlog. I have appointments booked out until June."

As of the end of last month, Herman said 3,772 applicants were waiting for benefits or just for an interview.

"We've just been totally overwhelmed," Adams said. "People we've never seen before, people who probably never thought they'd be here, because of the energy situation."

As of Feb. 1, the county had approved benefits for 4,635 dwelling units, with a total of 10,673 occupants, compared with 910 dwellings the previous Feb. 1.

The county also had handled 1,738 requests for emergency shutoff aid this winter, compared with 591 at the same point last year.

"We've already processed a lot more than last year, and last year was a busy year," Herman said.

Basic assistance is intended for low-income people having trouble with energy bills. The emergency shutoff provision applies to applicants so far behind on utility bills that they face a threat of losing their source of heat or the energy needed to provide heat, such as electricity needed to operate a furnace.

Herman said emergency shutoff cases go to the head of the line.

The amount of the benefits depends on household size. Applicants also must meet income limits of no more than $1,486 a month for those living alone, $1,943 a month for couples and $2,857 per month for a family of four.

Herman said those seeking aid can make only five applications per year: one for basic benefits, two to prevent a heating shutoff and two more for electricity needed to run a furnace or a similar utility expense.

For emergency aid, the caseworkers check out not only the applicants' current income but also their financial resources, such as bank accounts.

Processing benefits normally takes 30 to 90 days, and the money goes directly to the utility or energy company, not the applicant.

If a resident who has applied for emergency heat receives a shutoff notice within the 90 days, the Social Services Department contacts the energy company and requests that the shutoff be put on hold.

"Here in Niagara Falls, a large percentage are (natural) gas customers," Herman said. "In the rural areas, we see more propane and (heating) oil."

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