ATLANTA (AJC)-Low-income and senior Georgians who cannot pay their heating bills got a $10 million boost from state utility regulators, who stepped in Tuesday to approve the emergency money because federal funds have already run out.

The money will be used to help needy Georgians pay their heating bills starting in December or turn the heat back on for poor customers who have been disconnected in the last 45 days. The federal government cut the amount of money it gives to Georgia’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) program to $42 million from $84 million in 2010. Eligible seniors could sign up to receive assistance by Nov. 1, but by that time, the money already had run out.

In Fulton County, about 4,700 seniors — twice the amount than in 2010 — asked for assistance with their heating bills, depleting $1.8 million in federal funds before the general public could even ask for help.

“Certainly most of this commission is not a fan of big government social programs, but the reality is states are getting stuck with the impacts of drastic funding cuts to the energy assistance program,” Georgia Public Service Commissioner Stan Wise said. “There are really truly needy folks out there when the winter heating bills start to come in.”

Consumers can receive up to $160 total after showing their annual income is less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level or 60 percent of the state poverty level.

The $10 million is coming from the universal service fund that Atlanta Gas Light typically draws from to extend natural gas pipelines to where new homes and businesses are being built. Money for the fund comes from AGL’s industrial customers and its wholesale services unit, Sequent Energy Management. The PSC asked AGL to curb its 2012 project request to ensure that more money would be available to help poor people pay their heating bills.

The PSC approved $86,000 to help low-income Georgians in August. Tara Surratt, a utilities analyst with the PSC, told regulators Tuesday that the state’s Department of Human Services was holding on to that money because it had not renewed contracts with county agencies to disburse the funds.

“At this time the consumers are being impacted because there are no signed contracts,” Surratt said, adding, “We know for sure that they are still holding the $86,000 that was approved in August.”


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