Quick Questions: Larry Dawson

Larry Dawson, Director of the Illinois Office of Energy Assistance, Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Development, is the incoming chair of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association (NEADA), the primary organization for state directors of the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). We caught up with Larry to discuss funding challenges, the role of weatherization, and the summer heat wave.

Q. First, congratulations on becoming chair of NEADA. What do you see as some of the key issues facing state LIHEAP directors in the coming year?

Thank you. It is an honor to serve my fellow directors as chair. I see three key issues: decreasing funding as demand rises for our services, verification of clientsupplied information, and telling the story of the real impacts of LIHEAP on communities.

Q. What is the national role of LIHEAP in helping low-income families pay their home heating and cooling bills?

It is a firewall against unintended consequences. The low-income population is not monolithic. There are many different situations that these families face and varied circumstances that contribute to their low-income status. For all LIHEAP clients, the program contributes to comfortable inside air temperature in their homes, but it also has other benefits. LIHEAP can free up household income for purchasing food and medicine. It can keep the lights on so children can do their homework. It can help struggling families preserve their credit by preventing disconnections. Perhaps most importantly, it can prevent people from making dangerous choices to heat or cool their homes.

Q. Many states are experiencing record temperatures this summer. Do states have resources to help poor families pay their cooling bills this summer, in addition to having helped them pay their winter heating bills?

There is no emergency contingency funding this year for LIHEAP, so many states with difficult winters, like mine, have to make tough choices about priorities. With Illinois’ typically harsh winters, we prioritize heating assistance and dedicate all of our funding to that purpose. Unfortunately, Illinois, like many states, can have extreme temperatures at both ends of the spectrum. In summers like the current one, families with limited ability to cool their homes have faced a string of triple-digit temperatures all over the state. LIHEAP is in a position to make a difference to these households, and we have chosen to do so. The rub is that some of the funds for winter heating assistance had to be used to alleviate what we see as a summer crisis.

Q. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees have recently approved $3.471 billion for LIHEAP for FY2013, the same level provided in FY2012. In light of continued record levels of applications, will this level of funding be sufficient to address requests for assistance?

It certainly won’t be sufficient, but the energy assistance network is creative and we will make the most of the funding that is provided. The economy’s comeback has been slow to build up steam, but we know it will bounce back. In the meantime, there are many families who have never used programs like LIHEAP and are not aware of the services available. One of our challenges is reaching out to these people to ensure we are meeting their needs in addition to those we serve regularly.

Q. What is the role of the Weatherization Assistance Program in helping families pay their energy bills? Can Weatherization eliminate the need for LIHEAP?

I consider Weatherization and LIHEAP to be two sides of the same coin. They complement each other. First, I have to give the disclaimer that I happen to manage both programs, since in Illinois, both programs coexist within the same organization unit of my state agency. In my state, we see the two programs as the long-term and short-term approaches of the same mission, to lower the energy burden for low-income families. Illinois transfers the full 15% allowable from LIHEAP to Weatherization so that as some homes become more energy efficient, their need for LIHEAP diminishes. In turn, existing LIHEAP funds can stretch farther and assist more people. At current funding levels, Weatherization cannot possibly assist all of the income eligible families, whose homes are sorely in need of air sealing, insulation, heating system repair, or measures to improve their health and safety. While weatherization is reducing the energy consumption of as many homes as the limited funding allows, LIHEAP provides that bridge or safety net to all of the other households, preventing energy service disconnections and reducing the cost of energy to affordable levels. Well, that’s the theory at least.

Q. NEADA has requested an advance funding appropriation for LIHEAP. How would that improve the management of the program?

Immeasurably! It’s difficult to describe how difficult it can be to manage a program when you aren’t quite sure how much money you have to work with until you are halfway through your program year. The demand cycle for our services is fairly predictable, and decisions need to be made regarding outreach campaigns, grant amounts to service providers, and staffing levels for intake activities. These decisions need to be made prior to the peak demand period, while the total funding level may be unknown until well afterward. It’s like trying to plan a dinner for an unknown number of guests. We understand the various pressures that affect the funding process, but LIHEAP in many states hits its peak demand in the early part of the program year as opposed to other programs that have a steady flow of customers throughout the year. Some states are forced to start and stop and restart their intake operation because of the volatile nature of the funding lately. It is terribly inefficient and difficult on the customers who, in some cases, need these services desperately.

Q. The Government Accountability Office issued a report on LIHEAP last year that found a number of errors in the paperwork that could have led to unnecessary benefits being paid. How are the states responding to the findings of the study?

The states are taking a progressive stance under the leadership of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to collaborate, identify best practices nationwide, and implement measures to increase program integrity and further demonstrate good stewardship of taxpayer money. Every state LIHEAP director takes this issue very seriously, and we are working hard to establish a framework that prevents fraud or inadvertent errors from resulting in inappropriate benefits being provided. We don’t believe that fraud, waste, and abuse are rampant in LIHEAP. The overwhelming majority of customers are eligible and really need the benefits, but the small percentage of dishonest people who were identified in the GAO report must be prevented from depriving deserving families of already scarce energy assistance funds. Strong internal controls and data verification of information supplied by applicants are the cornerstones of this effort.