Denver Feels Pinch of Energy and Heating Payments

Requests for assistance to pay energy bills during Denver’s winter months are increasing each year, while federal funding that supports energy assistance programs has remained stagnant for approximately 25 years, according to data from nonprofit agencies in the state.Information from the Mile High United Way, an organization that coordinates with more than 100 nonprofit groups to help lower-income residents in Denver, shows that requests for utility assistance came second only to requests for rental assistance, and that the number of citizens seeking financial help for utilities continues to increase each year.

The federal Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP) operates in Colorado during the winter to assist those who are having problems paying their energy bills, but federal funding for the initiative hasn’t increased for a quarter-century.

The U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Children and Families held a hearing earlier in the week regarding LEAP, where panel chairman Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., questioned why the program has not been adequately funded with rising national energy costs.

“As both the price of oil and the number of families in need has risen, the funding we need to help them has remained basically flat,” he said.

Dr. Deborah A. Frank, a pediatrics professor at Boston University School of Medicine and a founder of the Children’s Sentinel Nutrition Assessment Program, a multi-site pediatric research group, testified that LEAP is currently funded to reach only about 16 percent of those who should get it.

Energy Outreach Colorado, a group that uses LEAP grants to help low-income families, has received (PDF) over $2 million from the federal program to assist individuals in the state for 2008. The same or lesser amounts have been given since at least 2003.

While Colorado doesn’t bear the heating burden of colder Midwestern and New England states, statistics from the Colorado Department of Human Services show that during the last week of February exactly 96,975 LEAP applications had been processed, with Denver leading in pending applications at 1,754. The city’s population is just over 566,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The state legislature passed a bill last year that gives the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) greater power to determine policies for low-income utilities customers, but despite the measure, no action has been taken to ease the burden.

According to Energy Outreach Colorado, an estimated 72 percent of energy customers will pay their bills out of pocket, while 28 percent will receive LEAP assistance in 2008.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at

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