Vermont Bernie Buzz: Do You Need Help with High Heating Bills?
This week Capstone Community Action was featured in the Vermont Bernie Buzz Newsletter by Senator Bernie Sanders. Please click on the link to view the full story about how to access fuel and utility assistance.
Highlights from the Q&A with Sue Rossi
How to Access Fuel Assistance in Vermont
Here are some excerpts from our conversation with Sue.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
Q: Hi Sue, thanks for sitting down with us. To kick it off, could you introduce yourself, and talk us through some of the basics of your work in Vermont fuel assistance?
Sue: Hi, my name is Sue Rossi. I'm the Energy Coordinator here at Capstone. I’ve worked here a little over 26 years now. I've done various jobs during that time, but I've settled in the fuel electric service department. I've probably been in this particular role for about 15 years. Capstone itself is one of the five community action agencies throughout the state that help Vermonters across a number of issues, including navigating fuel assistance. What folks should know is that every part of Vermont has either a Capstone or a different community action agency that you can reach out to. There are programs and funding that exist to help Vermonters get through our cold season. Fuel assistance teams at these community action agencies, including Capstone, are here to help Vermonters access those services.
Q: Can you explain a bit more about how Vermonters can access fuel assistance?
Sue: Yes. First, all the terms can get very confusing. What we want folks to remember is: Apply for fuel assistance through the State of Vermont, which is called LIHEAP. The state of Vermont will make a determination on a number of factors, one being income and the number of people in the household, the type of fuel they use, the size of their home etc. We have applications here at Capstone. We help folks fill out those applications. You can apply year-round for LIHEAP, so we're still encouraging people to do that. But people should apply by February 28 if they want to get full benefits for THIS heating season. We also have an emergency crisis fuel program, which is where we’re really busy right now. For example, if a Vermonter has exhausted their regular fuel assistance, we can sort of fill the gaps with our crisis fuel program.
Q: For those Vermonters reading this, could you explain who should consider applying for fuel assistance?
Sue: If you pay for heat or any other heat-related cost and you are low-income, apply. We encourage people to apply, because if they get into a bind, you’ll be in a much better position if you’ve already started the process.
Q: What are some of the common questions you get?
Sue: Some folks will call and say, ‘I’m almost out of fuel!’ So first off, don't wait. We tell everyone to call us when they get to a quarter of a tank during the fall or winter season. There are so many questions that can be hard for people to find the answers to. But that’s my job. To help find those answers. So, the key message of this whole interview I would say is call Capstone or your local Community Action Agency [see below]. Call and speak with a live person. We will set you in the right direction.
Q: Are there any anecdotes or stories that come to mind that show a bit about what Vermonters are going through and how important this program is to them?
Sue: You know, yes. The stories are all compelling and every situation is different. Some of the stories are really moving and they still move me after several years have gone by. There are so many. All significant and all different. People are juggling children and work and transportation issues and housing issues. And on the outside, we may really not know what's going on with people. You know, everyone has different struggles.
Q: Earlier you mentioned emergency fuel assistance. Is there an emergency hotline that operates after regular work hours for folks?
Sue: Yes, so of course emergencies happen. There are storms or your furnace broke or you ran out of fuel during a cold front. And that can happen during the holidays, after hours, and on the weekend. Our emergency hotline is staffed by people day or night and once we’re paged, we try to get back as quickly as possible to help you try to solve your heating emergencies. [See below for contact details].
Q: Can you speak to the importance of fuel assistance in a rural state like Vermont that has a full winter season? What are some of the challenges?
Sue: You know, the pandemic has just made everything way harder in so many ways. But what we tell people is, and we've been saying it for many, many, many years: Check your tank. When you're at twenty five percent, don't wait. We've seen a lot of people really in harm’s way this year, more so than usual, because of running out and we can't get dealers there any quicker than they have capacity to go. So that's been the worst thing this Winter.
Q: You’ve worked in fuel assistance for over 20 years. How has it changed in that time?
Sue: People's lives have gotten more complicated. And the details around accessing these services, not just in fuel but other things like housing, have also gotten more complicated. We have all these tools available to us through technology for applying for benefits, but sometimes they can make the process more complicated than it needs to be. People are struggling. They’re already juggling a lot. And you know, if accessing services is overly complicated, people can only juggle so much at once. So that’s much more challenging in that way than it used to be. Things are much more complicated today.
Q: Finally, what are some of your favorite parts of the job?
Sue: The people. And the stories they share. Doing this work, when you're here a long time, you form relationships with the customers, the participants. Sometimes I'm amazed how upbeat people still are with all they are struggling with. They also have kind words for us and they always ask about the staff. And they will tell us the funniest stories too. People have a sense of humor, that’s how we all get through.
Q: Well, thank you so much for sitting down with us.
Sue: Thank you.
See below for a flier on the different fuel assistance programs that are available, as well as key contact details for accessing these services, including in cases of emergency. LIHEAP receives applications year-round. To receive full benefits for THIS heating season, apply by February 28.
Want support in navigating and accessing fuel assistance? Reach out to your local Community Action Agencies:
BROC Community Action
Serving: Bennington and Rutland Counties
Contact: https://www.broc.org/ ; 802-775-0878
Capstone Community Action
Serving: Lamoille, Washington and Orange Counties
Contact: https://www.capstonevt.org/ 802-479-1053
Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO)
Serving: Addison, Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle Counties
Contact: https://www.cvoeo.org/ ; 802-862-2771
NEKCA - Northeast Kingdom Community Action
Serving Caledonia, Essex and Orleans Counties
Contact: https://www.nekcavt.org/ 802-334-7316
SEVCA - Southeastern Vermont Community Action
Serving: Windsor and Windham Counties
Contact: https://www.sevca.org/ 802-722-4575
If you have more questions call 1-800-479-6151 or visit https://dcf.vermont.gov/benefits/fuel-assistance for more information.