Erie County residents looking for help with their heating bills this winter may have an easier time getting aid, even though the county is not adding staff to deal with the problem.
The county's Home Energy Assistance Program will begin accepting applications on Oct. 1 this year, a full month and a half earlier than the Nov. 15 starting date in previous years.
That earlier start should solve some of the problems of long lines and delayed aid checks, said Deputy County Executive Carl J. Calabrese.
"This should spread out the congestion and the chaos we had last year," he said. "That was one part of the problem last year -- they essentially started a month into the heating season."
The heating aid program -- known as HEAP -- distributes federal aid checks to residents who are struggling to pay their heating bills. No county money is disbursed. Last year, with the price of natural gas skyrocketing and an extremely cold winter in Western New York, Erie County's HEAP office was swamped with applications for aid.
Kevin Duggan, energy director for the county, estimated that Erie County sent out about 100,000 checks for HEAP aid in 2000-01, totaling about $28 million in federal aid. That number does not mean 100,000 county residents received aid, since some residents received multiple checks at different times throughout the winter season.
It took Erie County until the end of August to mail out all the heating aid checks that were due to residents from last winter.
This winter, Calabrese said, the administration of County Executive Joel A. Giambra is taking steps to make sure the situation does not get out of hand again.
No new staff is being added to handle the HEAP applications, but, Calabrese said, changes to the program include:
A new site for residents to apply for HEAP aid, at 291 Pearl St., the former Hens & Kelley's department store. All new applicants and all HEAP applicants who are not receiving food stamps or public assistance funds are asked to go to the Pearl Street site, not to the Rath County Office Building. Applicants who are on public assistance or food stamps should go to the Rath Building, as usual. People can call a special hotline at 858-7644 with any questions about renewing their HEAP applications.
Automatic mailing of new application forms to all senior citizens, aged 60 and up, who received HEAP aid last year. Seniors who did not receive HEAP last year but want to apply this year can call the county's HEAP hotline for seniors, 858-7870, to have an application form mailed to them.
Opening suburban and city outreach sites for HEAP help starting on Dec. 1, in various locations throughout the county.
"We think we can handle it with our current staff," said Calabrese, outlining the changes in the program. "It's a matter of making sure we handle more things automatically."
Calabrese said the county does not have projections of how many residents will apply for HEAP aid this winter, but he said that the decrease in the cost of natural gas likely will work in the county's favor.
"Given the fact that home heating prices have come down, that should be to our advantage in lessening demand," he said. "But I still expect a good number of people will apply for these benefits, and we're ready for it."