Although meteorologists are predicting a warmer-than-average winter, chilly weather is on its way and it’s time to start thinking about home heating, area experts said.

For some, that means applying for federally funded home-heating assistance. Nov. 10 was the first day for applications for the Home Energy Assistance Program, according to Cindy Lane, principal welfare examiner at Otsego County Department of Social Services.

There are a variety of ways to apply for HEAP, which is a federally funded program, administered through local counties, that assists income-eligible households in meeting winter heating costs. The program can support payment for electricity, propane, natural gas, wood, oil, kerosene, coal, or other heating fuels. Anyone interested can apply by mail, phone, in person, or online, Lane said.

First, individuals should determine whether they are eligible for HEAP by completing a pre-screening at www.mybenefits.ny.gov. If eligible, the next step is to determine which county office or agency to deal with, based on their age and where they live. Individuals can then either call or visit that respective office to apply for HEAP.

If an individual already receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits or Public Assistance benefits, he or she should contact his or her caseworker, Lane said.

Scheduling for phone and in-person application interviews at Opportunities for Otsego began Monday, according to Daniel Maskin, chief executive officer of OFO. Interviews are already scheduled for about three weeks in, he said.

“It’s always very busy in the beginning,” Maskin said. “Then it quiets down around the holidays and emergency benefits are released in January.”

If filling out an application in person, individuals should plan on setting aside about an hour, Maskin said.

Individuals can also apply for HEAP online at otda.ny.gov/programs/heap/apply/ or myBenefits.ny.gov. Last year, more than 35,000 households applied online, according to The Associated Press. HEAP applications can also be downloaded online, printed, filled out and brought in to the appropriate county office or agency.

Once the applications are gathered, they are processed by the county’s department of social services, Lane said.

Individuals ages 60 and older should call or visit their local Office for the Aging. For Otsego County residents, the Office for the Aging can be reached at 547-4232, Lane said. 

Anyone under 60 in Otsego County can apply in person at Opportunities for Otsego or call the agency at 433-8000.

HEAP eligibility and benefits are based on income, how many people live in a household, the primary heating source and the presence of a household member who is under age 6, aged 60 or older or permanently disabled, according to the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. A household of four can earn up to $50,629 a year, or $4,219 a month, and still qualify for HEAP.

An eligible household may receive one regular HEAP benefit per program year. Regular benefits for households that pay directly for heat based on usage are paid directly to the vendor that supplies the household’s primary source of heat. This cost will, naturally, differ, depending on the vendor, Maskin said.

“It depends on price of fuel per gallon,” Maskin said. “Gas prices are going down, so that may or may not reflect fuel oil prices. It also matters how cold of a winter it is.”

Last winter, more than 1.5 million households statewide got help through HEAP, The Associated Press reported. Maskin said he hopes this year is not as harsh.

“We’re hoping it’s not going to be anything close to last year,” Maskin said. “It was a panic. People’s pipes were freezing.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Winter Outlook, a repeat of last year’s extreme weather is “unlikely.” In fact, NOAA is calling for warmer-than-average temperatures this winter in New York and New England.

Because weather predictions are never 100 percent accurate, it’s best to take the necessary precautions, Maskin said. Emergency benefits will be available through local social services departments after Jan. 2 for households in danger of running out of heating fuel or having utility services shut off, he added. 

For more information, call the state HEAP Hotline at (800)342-3009. 

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