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Families struggling to pay heating bills can get help

The typical monthly residential Colorado Springs Utilities bill hasn't risen much in recent years — it was $200 in January 2012 and is projected to be $207 this January. But that's still a lot for many households, and Utilities is also asking City Council to approve a 5.5 percent increase in electric rates for residential customers, or $4 per month for the typical residential customer, effective Jan. 1.

Add that to the fact that, as one expert notes, poorer families tend to live in inefficient homes, and what it means is that the onset of frigid temperatures will leave many scrambling to pay heating bills.

But there is help available. Here's a look at the top options.

• Low-income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP): This federally funded program is available from Nov. 1 to April 30 for energy bills only, and usually provides only one-time assistance. LEAP is available to households with incomes at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty guideline ($2,982 a month for a family of four).

Most other programs won't offer help until you've applied to LEAP. You can apply at the county's Citizens Service Center, Colorado Springs Utilities, at tiny.cc/ozvdpx, or by calling 866/HEAT-HELP.

• Citizen's Option to Provide Energy (Project COPE): This Colorado Springs Utilities program, whose funds go entirely to needy customers, is fueled by customer donations and a Utilities match of up to $500,000 a year. In 2013, it helped 3,702 households with nearly $1 million in payment assistance. Project COPE doesn't have income requirements, runs year-round, and covers both energy and water.

"We can come in on a case-by-case basis and help with the entire bill," says Utilities spokesperson Patrice Lehermeier.

To apply, call 211. A representative there will connect you with a charity in your area that can help with the application process. More info is at projectcopecs.org.

Energy Resource Center: This nonprofit actually helps families in 13 counties, but of the approximately 1,000 homes it serves annually, about 500 are in El Paso County.

The center doesn't assist with bills directly; it does free and low-cost work to make homes an average of 20 percent more efficient for low-income families (see "Floor to sealing," SimpliCity, July 30). The work might range from installing new insulation to providing a new furnace.

Center workers also check for safety issues, identifying problems in about a quarter of homes. Howard Brooks, executive director, says he recently heard from a past client who thanked the ERC for providing her with a carbon monoxide detector — it had saved her life.

Households at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line (up to $3,975 a month for a family of four) are eligible, but Colorado Springs Utilities customers can qualify with incomes of up to 250 percent of the poverty line (up to $4,906 a month for a family of four). The average wait to have work done is four months, though elderly and disabled people, along with families with children under 6, are bumped to the top of the waiting list. The Center also gives priority to people with a broken furnace in the winter months.

To find out more, call 591-0772 or erc-co.org.

• Other programs: Energy Outreach Colorado (energyoutreach.org) is a nonprofit that helps about 21,000 people with heating bills every year statewide. In this county, it provides a total of about $125,000 to several programs and nonprofits, some of which provide help with alternative forms of heating. The best way to find out about these nonprofits is to call 211.

  • Families struggling to pay heating bills can get help

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