State utility assistance program accused of leaving needy families in the cold | Michigan Radio
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State utility assistance program accused of leaving needy families in the cold

Jan 21, 2019

Lara Jesiek holds a copy of the letter she received from the Department of Health and Human Services that offered to help, but at a price her family could not afford.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Over the weekend, parts of Michigan recorded temperatures well below zero.

The bitter cold temps come as many Michiganders are struggling to get help from the state to keep the heat on in their homes.

Lara Jesiek lives in the small northern Michigan town of Alanson, a short drive from Cheboygan.

“I love the country life,” Jesiek says as we talk in a restaurant in Alanson. “I love where my kids can go outside and play in the woods … and go to the lake right up the road.”

This time of year that trip to the lake will probably involve a snowmobile.

Northern Michigan winters can be a struggle. And this year, Lara and her husband are having an even harder time. They’ve lost work because of illness. And now they’re struggling with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to get help with their mounting heating bills.

The department recently offered to pay to fill the Jesiek’s propane tank, but only if the family put up $390.  

“For a minimum fill for our tank, it costs us $310,” says Jesiek as she holds a copy of the DHHS reply to her family’s aid request.“If we had the $390, we wouldn’t be asking for assistance.”

In the past, the state worked with local non-profits to identify people who qualify for help paying their utility bills. However, there was concern that some decisions made by those groups didn’t strictly follow state eligibility rules. 

So starting this fiscal year, the Department of Health and Human Services took over the job itself. And that is apparently causing problems. 

Owen Goslin helps people with utility assistance in northern Michigan.

Goslin says a state review process can sometimes drag on for weeks or months.

In the meantime, he says families can’t get help from other sources.

“They can’t get the assistance from United Way they might be eligible for,” says Goslin. “They need that denial letter that says they didn’t get help from DHHS assistance before they can go these other third-party organizations.”

This is not just a problem in rural Michigan.

Joan Jackson-Johnson works for the city of Lansing. She helps people there pay their utility bills.   

Jackson-Johnson says the state’s decisions can be confusing. She points to two cases her office recently handled.

“One was a single woman, no children. DHHS paid a $1,000 toward … the electric piece and $175 for water. Another family, a mother with six kids. And her bill was almost $3,000. And [DHHS] said that wasn’t an emergency, although the water was off,” says Jackson-Johnson. “How do you rationalize that?” 

Kenton Schulze oversees the state’s Emergency Relief program. He says, despite the complaints, there has been no reduction in the amount of energy assistance that’s been approved this fiscal year.  

“Anytime there’s change I think you’ll have bumps in the road” says Schulze. “Especially when it’s a service that people are familiar with using and looking at they have to apply in a different way that causes some concern.”

DHHS data show State Emergency Relief energy payments actually increased during the fourth quarter of 2018 compared to the previous year. Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program funding increased from nearly $6 million in the fourth quarter of 2017 to more than $16 million during the same three months in 2018.  

Schulze says they are trying to “smooth out” some parts of the application process and make it more customer-friendly.

But state case workers contacted by Michigan Radio say they’re overwhelmed, and fear repercussions if they speak up.

Karen Martin is a retired state assistance payments worker. She’s willing to talk about the problems her former colleagues are complaining about. 

Martin says this is a tragedy waiting to happen.

“What if they don’t have family to stay with while it’s cold? What if they don’t have money to stay in a motel while it’s cold?” says Martin.

Back in Alanson, Lara Jesiek’s propane tank is once again full, thanks to friends chipping in.   

She'd like to see Gov. Gretchen Whitmer fix the problems with the utility assistance program.

“Nobody should be without heat. Nobody should be without any of this stuff,” says Jesiek.

There is a warming trend coming to northern Michigan. But high temperatures are only expected to reach into the mid-teens the rest of this month.