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Millions needed for heat aid

Program expected to fall at least $3 million short

Several million dollars will be needed to help low-income Utahns pay their heating bills this winter, according to preliminary figures from the governor's office.

"At a minimum we're probably looking at a $3 million shortfall," said Laura Nelson, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s energy policy adviser.

The state's HEAT program, which provides one-time funding for qualifying recipients, is expected to receive approximately $14 million this season from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

The figure is the same as last year but is not expected to be enough to cover additional need brought by rising heating costs.

With no more federal dollars coming to Utah, and no state appropriation expected, the gap must be bridged using private donations, Huntsman has said.

The governor's office expects to unveil a plan early next week to solicit such assistance, Nelson said.

"What we're going to be doing is really sending a message that there is a need out there," she said. "Help your neighbor."

It's not clear where those funds will be directed to eventually make their way to needy Utahns. The American Red Cross already administers two programs using private funds donated to Questar Gas Co. and Utah Power.

The governor has said he will appeal to the state's two largest energy utilities to offer assistance to Utahns in need.

Huntsman expressed concern last week about rising heating costs, estimated to add nearly $32 to the typical Utah household's monthly gas bill.

"It's going to be a difficult winter for a lot of people. There's no doubt about that," the governor said at his monthly press conference that airs on KUED Channel 7.

Nelson calculated the $3 million shortfall by looking at the amount of funds allocated by the HEAT program in the 2004-05 period. The amount represents how much is needed to keep people at the same level of assistance, which was about $290 per household.

However, she said, the amount will represent a smaller percentage of recipients' overall gas bill, given the higher costs this year. And if more people apply for assistance than last year, the percentage will be even lower.

Still, Nelson said, "Everyone will get assistance."