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Cold Shoulder: Gas Costs Rise As Funds For Needy Fade

Highstown, NJ — October 7, 2003 —The following news article appeared in the October 7, 2003 edition of the Herald News and is reproduced with permission of the Herald News, affiliated with the North Jersey Media Group.

As North Jersey braces for a winter that could see a 12 percent increase in natural gas prices, a major program to help working families pay their gas bills is going broke.

Officials at the New Jersey Statewide Heating Assistance and Referral for Energy Services, or NJ SHARES, said the nonprofit organization has run out of state funding and has only limited funds for the state's utility customers.

NJ SHARES relies on donations from customers in addition to funds provided by the state. Contributions received this year are on pace with what the organization had expected, said NJ SHARES spokesman Jim Jacob. But a higher demand for assistance with utility bills - caused by a slow economy, a cold winter in 2003 and rising gas rates - has depleted the coffers of NJ SHARES, he said.

This year, the organization spent nearly $1 million to assist 5,400 families and is now left with $30,000 for the entire state, he said.

Relief funds set aside for PSE&G customers have completely dried up, he said. Catholic Charities, the only organization in Passaic County with any funds remaining, has $3,000 left - enough to help only six families, he said.

"Until a new funding cycle starts up next year, we will be unable to provide assistance," Jacob said.

Some area residents said they were taken aback by their natural gas bills.

"I can tell you my August gas bill was up to $40 over last year, and that was just for cooking," said Robin Flemmings of Paterson.

Assemblyman Peter Eagler, D-Clifton, who sits on the committee overseeing state energy policy, said NJ SHARES provides a vital service that needs to be properly funded. "What are you going to do, have these people become homeless? Then they'll be an even greater burden to the system," he said Friday.

Eagler said he has been pushing the state Board of Public Utilities to complete a new program for low-income residents, the Universal Service Program Fund. The program was rolled out in April 2002 and, if implemented on schedule next month, will use funds generated from a $1 surcharge on all customers to help those most in need.

Another fan of NJ SHARES is the New Jersey Ratepayer Advocate's Office, which represents consumer interests before the Board of Public Utilities. NJ SHARES, which can help both middle- and lower-income families, is especially important during this time of high unemployment, according to board officials.

"NJ SHARES is a crisis management program;" Andrew Dembia, deputy director of the office, said Friday.

"If a husband works and the wife stays home and then the husband loses his job, the family qualifies," he said.

NJ SHARES has helped more than 82,000 families in crisis since its inception in 1998, with one-time relief payments that can total up to $500 per year per family, Jacob said.

Money donated by each utility company assists only that company's customers.

The money given this year by PSE&G is now gone, he said.

In July, NJ SHARES stopped sending funds to the local community groups it works with.

One of these groups is the Paterson Task Force, which used the funds to help 2,845 people last year, said its director, Lana Stokes.

She has nothing more to give this year to families who earn too much to qualify as low-income, she said.

PSE&G is not anticipating an extremely cold winter and therefore is not planning to apply for state permission to raise natural gas rates again, said Karen Johnson, a PSE&G spokeswoman. But if the coming winter turns out to be severe, additional rate increases could be on the way.

Natural gas costs nationwide are predicted to go up 8 percent from last year for residential customers, said Jonathan Cogan, spokesman for the federal Energy Information Administration. The agency's calculation assumes a milder winter than last year's, combined with the current 12 percent increase in wholesale gas prices.

The primarily cause of the higher wholesale price difference was last year's harsh weather, Cogan said.

The nation had record low levels of gas in storage at the end of last winter, he said.

"There were concerns last spring that we would not have enough gas available for this year's heating season," Cogan said.

Despite the shortage of NJ SHARES assistance this year, other relief options for the poor and elderly remain in effect, including the new Universal Service Program Fund.

Senior citizens have long been eligible for $225 per year from the state's Lifeline Utility Assistance program, which can be reached at (800) 792-9745.

Individuals and families making less than 175 percent of the poverty line still qualify for the federally funded Low-Income Heating Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.

Those seeking assistance in Paterson can call the Paterson Task Force at (973) 279-2333 starting in November.

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