PENDLETON - Even with the unusually warm winter, some people are having problems paying their electric and heating bill.

"During the winter when utility bills go up, some low-income folks are forced to choose between heating and eating," said Donna Kinnaman, the Community Services and Energy Executive Officer for Community Action Program East Central Oregon (CAPECO).

In an effort to lessen the financial burden of heating costs, the state, through CAPECO, offers one-time assistance through the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LIEAP), she said. CAPECO offers the program to people in Umatilla Morrow, Gillam and Wheeler counties. Last year 2,135 households received a one-time payment.

To be eligible for the program, a family must make 60 percent of the median income for the state. For a family of four that means $34,989 a year, and for a family of one $18,194 per year before taxes, said Kinnaman.

"They must provide proof of their income (all household income), all cash to the household," she said. Applicants also need to provide copies of their current heating and electric bills.

Although the winter has been warmer, she urged anyone who wanted to be served by the program to apply immediately.

"We only received 60 percent of what the total budget was for last year," she noted.

The reduction in funding means the LIEAP program will only be able to serve about 1,280 households this year, she said.

"People need to apply immediately to get served as it is a first-come first-serve program."

In addition to the one-time assistance, CAPECO also evaluates the house to determine how it needs to be weatherized. If there is an income-eligible person living in the home, they will winterize the house at no cost, she added.

Kinnaman also suggested people on a fixed income arrange a payment plan with their utility company. People should arrange the plan before they start falling behind in bills.

"When people need assistance, many times people wait too long and wait till they get a shutoff notice," she said. Kinnaman urged making arrangements before things escalate to that point.

Arranging a payment schedule that spreads winter's expensive bills throughout the year helps people manage their budgets better, she pointed out.

"An equal-pay plan for anyone on a fixed income is the way to go because you know what your bills will be from month to month," she said.

People also need to remember that the LIEAP is a one-time assistance and people should not completely avoid paying their bills, she said.

"They still need to pay a little bit of money on their bill, because if they stockpile a little bit it helps make the (LIEAP) payment last longer."

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The Low-Income Energy Assistance Program is open to the general public.

Anyone wishing to apply for assistance should call 276-1926 or 1-800-752-1139, extension 150 for English speakers or extension 151 for Spanish speakers.

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