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Madison County proposes local heating assistance program

County officials anticipate a potentially catastrophic heating season, but the Madison County Department of Social Services won't give residents the cold shoulder when it comes to home energy costs this winter. Commissioner Michael Fitzgerald asked members of the Social and Mental Health Committee to consider creating a backup fund to supplement the state's distribution of Home Energy Assistance Program funds.

"We always have folks who fall between the [state eligibility] cracks," Fitzgerald said. "This would allow us to crate our own set of priorities to fill that gap."

Fitzgerald's dream account would be a fund of about $25,000. He said that money would go a long way toward meeting the unmet needs of those who might fall short of their heating needs. Fuel oil and gasoline prices have nearly doubled in the past year, and those demands are forcing some families to choose between staying warm and getting to work or purchasing food and prescription medications.

"We're taking a look at what we can do," Fitzgerald said. "Kick in a little extra."

A poll of the SMH Committee found wide-spread support for Fitzgerald's proposal. He is preparing a resolution to go before his home committee and the Finance, Ways and Means Committee later this month. If approved by both committees, the resolution should be put to the full Board of Supervisors at its September meeting.

Fitzgerald told the committee the looming heating crisis is no surprise.

"There's been quite a bit of press on the expectations of the upcoming heating season," Fitzgerald said. "The state is putting quite a bit of money into energy programs, which are typically federally funded programs. They're talking a pretty substantial investment."

According to Fitzgerald, the details are shifting daily on income eligibility and maximum allowable benefits, who is administrating the funds and how applicants can access them. He said his department is working on making the process "administratively as easy as possible."

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