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Fuel and heating costs top list of economic concerns

PLATTSBURGH Concerns over how people in the North Country will deal with rising home heating costs and gasoline prices dominated the discussion among a recent meeting of state officials. The Governors Economic Security Cabinet met at Clinton Community College July 16 where a town hall meeting was held to hear comments and concerns from local residents. The meeting was part of a initiative to reach out to residents statewide over a seven-week period. Issues raised by those in attendance ran the gamut from increasing broadband Internet access to building and retaining the areas workforce. However, the chief concern addressed during the evening was how residents will be able to afford to heat their homes and commute to work with rising fuel prices. Sue Montgomery Corey, who serves as chairman of the National Fuel Funds Network, stated statistics regarding those unable to make ends meet already due to high energy costs are alarming. The poorest 20 percent of the population has an energy burden at or above 40 percent of their income, said Corey. In Coreys own experience, she reviewed her elderly mothers own home heating fuel budget, which went from less than $300 a month last year to more than $600 a month this year. Corey said her mother applied for financial assistance through the Home Energy Assistance Program, though only received $400, less than the cost of one delivery of heating oil. There are many households that are in that situation, she said. Were at the point now where the basic benefit doesnt cover a delivery of oil. In this part of the world, thats very important, because in North Country counties, 50-70 percent of households or more heat with oil. If you combine that with transportation energy costs ... theres a double-whammy here, she added. We have a lot of folks who struggle annually and were sure that number is going to increase a lot. There is a rippling effect rising fuel prices can have on families, as evidenced in a recent study by the Childrens Sentinel Nutrition Assessment Program in Boston, said Corey. In the study, which examined surveyed families from 2000-2005, CSNAP found families with children younger than the age of 3 who have problems paying bills also find difficulty maintaining good nutrition and good health. They found that the children of those households had some definite difference among them versus households that werent energy secure, said Corey. Among them, they found babies and toddlers were more likely to be in poor health, to have a history of hospitalization, and to be at risk for developmental problems, iron deficiencies, anemia, behavior and emotional problems. Its not a bunch of energy advocates telling you theres a problem out there; its people who work day-to-day with children in the health care setting who are looking at this and saying energy is an issue, Corey added. Through her position with the NFFN, which represents more than 300 organizations across the country that offer energy assistance, Corey said she has recommended increased assistance from the federal level through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. LIHEAP serves the largest amount of people in the country, she said, serving 800,000 households a year. The federal government is authorized to spend up to $5 billion, though it has never utilized that amount, she said. Its never come even remotely close to that, said Corey, who remarked the highest it has been is in the neighborhood of $3 billion. Right now, we need the program fully-funded, not just in the north, but throughout the nation. Martin D. Mannix Jr., a councilman for the town of Plattsburgh, agreed that more funding is necessary to help those who will be affected this winter. This has got to be addressed, Mannix said firmly. Im not trying to be an alarmist, but we are going to deal with an emergency that is almost cataclysmic when you think about it ... Were going to have people, who in droves, are going to be leaving healthcare because thats one place theyll be able to find some dollars for their budget. Those problems are all going to come back on the state of New York, because were going to have that many more uninsured people. What we need is a task force to develop an emergency plan to deal with these issues, Mannix added. If we wait to deal with them in December or January, were going to be faced with, as I said, cataclysmic results. Saranac town councilman Phil Rice agreed with Mannixs concerns. Rice further noted some families could be faced with the inability to send their children to college due to covering rising fuel and heating oil expenses while, on the other end of the spectrum, senior citizen could face life-threatening situations. Maybe well have to open up rooms in some of the schools for older people so they can come in, get warm and get a meal, so they can save some of their fuel for night, said Rice. We may have expand some of our after-school programs so kids can stay and keep warm and have a warm supper. State Sen. Elizabeth OC. Little, R-Queensbury, who was also in attendance for the meeting, commented on the concerns of the residents of her district. We really feel that is going to be a crisis, said Little. I have town supervisors talking to me about what they can do, about having shelters, about how they might be able to help people who are isolated and who live alone. Weve already had people calling our office crying over their fuel bill, about how much it costs and how they are going to get through the winter. New York State Department of Labor Commissioner M. Patricia Smith, who chaired the town hall meeting, said while the Deputy Secretary for Energy and his agencies are not within the Governors Economic Security Cabinet, the concerns raised during the forum will be brought back to his department and the other proper people in state government.

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