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Federal funds aid in energy assistance emergencies

Mickey Finn of Finn Logistics in Wadena digs around the foundation while members of his crew, Larry Schwartz, left, and Charlie Davison, right, work to install insulation at a New York Mills home being weatherized through a program funded by the Otter Tail-Wadena Community Action Council.

Early season cold weather, along with unemployed and laid off workers are major factors attributed to an increase of energy assistance requests to Otter Tail-Wadena Community Action Council.

Federal stimulus funds recently made available to OT-W CAC Family Services should help many families in need of assistance this fall and winter.

"We've seen a increase in requests from households looking for assistance with their utilities," said Diane Leaders, Family Services Director at OT-W CAC. "The snow hitting us early and temperatures staying in the 30's certainly didn't help. It's adding serious hardship on households already struggling."

OT-W Community Action Council Family Services provides funds for families that qualify for energy assistance, as well as those that do not, and tries to work with, "everyone that has a crisis."

Three different funds at Community Action will receive federal stimulus dollars through the American Recovery and Revitalization Act of 2009 (ARRA).

Family Services will receive $275,000 over two years in for emergency services in Otter Tail and Wadena Counties. The Weatherization program will receive $2.7 million over three years to make low income homes in the area more energy-efficient.

There are existing general programs funded with money before the stimulus dollars for emergencies in a number of categories for individuals and families in Otter Tail and Wadena Counties.

Mortgage assistance is available for past due mortgage payments (principal and interest only) and free counseling is available to assist clients in working with their lendors to prevent foreclosure.

Rent/rent deposit funds are available to provide assistance with past due rent, first month's rent or rental deposit if there is a threat of homelessness.

If a client is homeless (living in a car, park, tent, etc.) there are funds available for temporary emergency shelter in a hotel/motel while looking for permanent housing, assistance with first month's rent and deposit and possibly utility deposits.

Funds for utility/utility deposits are available to help prevent a disconnect, help reconnect a disconnected utility or provide a minimum fill of delivered fuels when in crisis. There are also funds available for utility deposits when re-housing a client in a homeless situation.

Community Action processes the energy assistance requests and funds are paid directly to vendors to pay utility bills like heat, electricity, or minimum propane fills.

The maximum amount of energy assistance is $1,400 and the family does not see the funds.

Community Action processes energy assistance requests for Wadena County, but not Otter Tail County.

The ARRA is a federal program enacted under the Obama Administration as a way to create jobs and aid the country's financial recovery.

Minnesota is scheduled to receive $4.7 billion in ARRA funds, of which $1.44 billion is already committed.

Lynn Nesland, a Family Services Counselor, said the agency's primary focus with the federal funds is on people who have had their job affected by the economic downturn. People experiencing reduced hours at work, who have been laid off recently, or who are laid off and going to school, such as those from Lund Boat Co. in New York Mills, are good examples of this population focus.

Community Action is looking to hire another counselor to handle the ARRA program and increased requests for assistance.

The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program (HPRP) may provide sustained payments toward rent and utility for clients who have experienced reduced employment hours or income during the recession. This ARRA-funded program works on a two-year grant cycle.