The federal government has cut $2.8 billion to fund the low-income home energy assistance program. Its a move that could have a ripple effect on New Jersey.

Winter hasn't even officially arrived and we've already had the first snowfall of the season. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has allotted $1.7 billion for a program that provides low-income homes with money to help pay their winter heating bills. That's down from the $4.5 billion last year.

Hollie Gilroy, spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which administers the program, says with people still facing tough times financially and forecasters predicting a cold winter, "we don't want residents having to choose between paying their heating bills or some other necessity."

Although the feds are putting less money into the program, Gilroy is confident that people who need the assistance will get it. "Funding availability is always suspect to the federal government, however we believe we are going to be able to cover most of those who need the help this winter."

She emphasized that those who feel they cannot afford to pay their bills should think about taking advantage of the program, "your home may not be safe, you could be at risk of serious illness or even death from carbon monoxide, some people go to extreme measures and use propane heaters and grills which can be really dangerous."

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program provides aid to millions of households across the nation. In 2009, the last year for which figures are available, 7.7 million households in all 50 states benefited from the program.

In 2010 in New Jersey, the program helped over 280,000 families pay their heating bills.

To apply for LIHEAP, households should contact the authorized local community action agency or community-based organization in their area. The application period runs from now through April 30th. For persons age 60 or older, or who are disabled, applications may be received and returned by mail. Other households may apply by mail at the discretion of the local agency. Assistance toward heating costs depends on income, household size, fuel type, and heating region.

The LIHEAP application can also be used to apply for the Universal Service Fund Program, which is a state-funded initiative administered by the DCA's Division of Housing and Community Resources to help make natural gas and electric heating bills more affordable for low-income households. To be eligible, a household gross income must be at or below 175 percent of the federal poverty level, and pay more than 3 percent of its annual income for electric or natural gas. If a household has electric heat, it must spend more than 6 percent annual income on electricity to be eligible.

For more information on LIHEAP or to locate the nearest application agency, please call 1-800-510-3102. Additional information is also available on their website.

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