Heating bills bring chills of worry in rural Minnesota

Farm Forum

Ron Selleck huddles under an electric blanket every night, worrying how long the propane in the tank outside his home will last.

A retired widower living on a fixed income in North Branch, Minn., he panicked a little when the $650 he spent on 300 gallons didn’t last even a month this extra cold winter. That was after he closed off bedrooms, set the thermostat at 58 and built fires in a wood stove. Selleck, 78, is running out of options to pay for the increased gallons and higher price of propane required to keep his old house minimally warm.

As winter keeps an enduring, ferocious grip on Minnesota and much of the nation, the price of propane is jumping and all types of furnaces are running extra hard, putting residents like Selleck on the brink of freezing pipes and financial disaster.

Administrators of government heat-assistance programs and nonprofits are seeing a spike in requests for help.

Propane suppliers already are rationing supplies and natural gas users began feeling the pinch Sunday, when Xcel Energy and other utilities asked customers to conserve fuel in the wake of a Canadian pipeline explosion that has limited the flow of natural gas.

CenterPoint Energy is telling customers that January bills for natural gas could be double what they were in December, depending on the customer, spokeswoman Becca Virden said.

Selleck got some help from the Salvation Army after he used up his allotment of government heating assistance that is administered through the Lakes and Pines Community Action Council in Mora, Minn.

There, staff member Vickie Palmquist said the crisis department is overwhelmed this season with heartbreaking stories.

“Clients are calling in and saying ‘We’re keeping it at 50 degrees to make it last longer,’?” Palmquist said. “When you hear of these little old ladies and little old men that are keeping their house at 50 degrees … I want to take them home and stick them in my … house. I just feel so bad and I can’t do anything and all of us feel like that here and our hands our tied.”

Rural troubles

While most urban dwellers fire their furnaces with piped-in natural gas and can get protection from shut-off until April 15 under the state’s “cold weather rule,” residents of rural areas who get propane or fuel oil delivered by truck aren’t so lucky.

The Salvation Army is getting overwhelmed with calls from rural areas, especially from those who use propane, which has seen a shortage and dramatic wholesale price increase in the Midwest, going from $1.55 per gallon last fall to just under $5 last week. The Minnesota Propane Association estimates that more than 250,000 homes, farms and businesses use propane as their main source of heat.

“The price is astronomical. … The money they get from public resources isn’t buying them near as much and they’re going through twice as much with this kind of weather,” said Mike McGlone, director of the HeatShare program at the Salvation Army in Minnesota. “It’s a problem we have and we’re not sure what to do about it.”

No matter what kind of fuel people are using, they’re using more of it to keep their homes heated to a minimum warmth. The average temperature in the Twin Cities this winter is just over 11 degrees — 7 degrees colder than the 30-year average and almost 10 degrees colder than last winter, according to the National Weather Service.

Early this season, the number of Minnesotans seeking government heating assistance was on track with last year, officials said, but more subzero temperatures are changing that.

During the first week of January, applications for energy assistance went up nearly 10 percent compared to the same week last year, according to officials in the state Department of Commerce, which administers the federal heating assistance money. With continued cold weather, officials expect applications will continue to climb above normal.

Congress moved last week to provide some extra heating relief across the cold nation, adding $3.4 billion to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. State commerce officials are waiting to see how much extra money Minnesota will get when the funds are divided among states.

Households with an income of less than 50 percent of the state median — $43,642 for a family of four — may qualify for energy assistance that will be paid to the utility company directly.

In addition to a primary grant, crisis money is available for those with extra needs. As early as this week, Commerce Department officials expect they will be able to increase those crisis payments to propane and fuel oil users from $500 to $1,000.

Funds limited

In urban areas, applications for assistance typically jump after April 15, when the cold-weather rule ends and residents who are behind on their natural gas bills face a shut-off. Officials are encouraging low-income natural gas customers to apply for assistance early, since money is limited and is available first-come, first-served.

“I’m very concerned about what’s going to happen … the high balances that people will be carrying into spring. Obviously, people are going to be using a lot more heat in January with the cold weather,” said Scott Zemke, director of program operations for Community Action Partnership of Suburban Hennepin.

In Brooklyn Park, Vicki Parchman is already having trouble covering her $150 December natural gas bill with her Social Security disability checks, she said. Though she said she budgets carefully to keep up with her bills during the summer, winter bills to heat her half of a duplex always stretch her finances. Now, hearing that her January bill could double, Parchman panicked.

“Oh, I can’t do that,” she said. “I will get evicted. I can’t pay my rent and do that.”

Parchman, 55, sighed and said she’ll have to find more assistance somehow. In the meantime, she said, she’ll continue to try to keep costs down by lowering the thermostat and layering.

“You just have to learn to dress warm,” she said, “and keep it down as low as you can stand it.”

In the North Woods town of Ely, Amy Janeksela is always aware of how much fuel oil is in her basement heating tank. Last week, it was about 25 gallons — enough for about a week, she hoped.

Last year, the waitress and single mother of one spent about $2,700 on heat, she said. This winter, with average temperatures lower, she has already spent more than $3,000 and has had to seek assistance from the Salvation Army, a local church and her dad. That’s after she’s wrapped her windows, closed off entire rooms, added extra layers of clothing and kept the thermostat in the low 60s.

“I’ve run out of fuel oil a lot,” she said. “It’s been brutal.”