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Federal cuts leave local residents in the cold
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A program designed to help low-income households with their heating bills has been postponed due to a lack of federal funding.

Ninth District Opportunity Inc., a nonprofit agency offering programs to low-income residents, learned last week that the anticipated $630,000 in funding had been suspended.

"The state gave us in Dawson County about $30,000 to start the season with," said Alice Williamson, local director. "They don't know when or if we'll get the remainder."

Ninth District Opportunity had announced in November it would offer a Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program.

That program would offer one-time payments of energy bills on behalf of qualifying households in the agency's coverage area, which includes Dawson County.

Dec. 1 was scheduled to be the first day the general public could set up appointments for heating help.

However, Williamson found out Nov. 29 that the money would not be available.

Prior to Dec. 1, only those 65 and older could apply for assistance.

Williamson said she currently has more than 60 people who remain on that group's waiting list.

"There's no point to open applications for the general public when we have all these elderly on the waiting list, who would be helped first if any additional funds come in," she said.

In 2010, Ninth District received $126,410 for Dawson County. That funding helped 371 people heat their homes.

"Everyone who applied for help and was eligible received assistance last year," Williamson said.

On average, heating assistance is between $300 and $350 per household.

Many of those who apply seek assistance each year and are not sure how they're going to stay warm this winter without the help.

"The majority of the ones calling us will be calm and say they don't know what they are going to do if they don't get the help," Williamson said.

"Sometimes we will get those who call you every day asking if we've got the money yet, even when we tell them we'll call them immediately when we get them money in."

Williamson remains hopeful the funding will come through.

"If more money becomes available, we will advertise it at that time," she said. "But any additional money that becomes available will fund those 60 elderly on the waiting list first."

For those needing help this winter, there are few other options available.

The Dawson County Sheriff's Office provides free firewood to senior citizens through the local senior center.

St. Vincent de Paul, a local volunteer service, also provides assistance in events of emergency, Williamson said.

"The sad part is, this time of year normally we take the heating part of it off St. Vincent de Paul," Williamson said.

"We do that part so they can put their funds toward rent and other things the families may need. This year, they are going to be carrying the whole load if we don't get money."