GRU, non-profit team up for electric bill help

A local organization will address a growing need for energy bill assistance with a two-day outreach event at Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU’s) administrative offices.

The Central Florida Community Action Agency (CFCAA) will help people complete applications to get money for their electricity bills at an event Friday afternoon and Monday morning. Hosted at GRU’s Southeast Fourth Avenue location, the event is part of the CFCAA’s low-income home energy assistance (LIHEAP) program. 

The agency covers Alachua, Levy and Marion counties and has roughly $3 million in LIHEAP funding available this year for the three-county area, said Caroline Ruff-Looney, CEO of CFCAA.

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With rising inflation, utility rates and gas prices, people are falling behind in their bills, and the CFCAA has seen an increase in the number of applications being submitted, Ruff-Looney said in a phone interview.

“The phones have been off the hook,” Ruff-Looney said. 

Funded through the Department of Economic Opportunity, the LIHEAP program aids people who need help paying heating or cooling costs, and people who are in danger of their electricity being shut off. The program can also help people pay their utility deposits so they can establish service.

David Warm, the communications director at GRU, said via email that more than 21,000 GRU residential customers are behind on their bills as of May 3. Approximately 1,646 GRU customers used LIHEAP funds last year to pay bills or establish service.

The purpose of the outreach event is to connect with people who are unable to come into the CFCAA’s office and/or people who are unable to complete an online application, Ruff-Looney said. 

The average award is $1,000, but applicants can apply three times a year and receive up to $5,000 in a single year, according to the CFCAA.

If a client’s application is approved, the CFCAA pays the utility directly. In 2021, GRU received approximately $410,000 in LIHEAP funds, according to the CFCAA.

The awards are need-based and determined using the area median income, which also depends on the number of people in the household. 

For a one-person household, anyone making under $25,296 is eligible for LIHEAP aid, according to the CFCAA. That eligibility amount increases as the number of people in the household increases.

There are separate qualifications for people who are disabled, age 60-plus, or have children who are 5 years old or younger, according to the CFCAA.

The turnaround time for the award can take several weeks, which is why it’s important that applicants collect all the necessary documentation and bring it with them to the event, Ruff-Looney said. People who bring complete documentation to the event can minimize the wait time for the funding.

“The purpose of the outreach event is to ensure that when they come we can go ahead and process everything right then and there,” Ruff-Looney said. “We want to expedite the service… They are coming out there. They need the service. So… the whole goal of the outreach is to ensure we can get those services to them sooner rather than later.”

For people whose LIHEAP applications are approved, GRU will work with CFCAA to extend payment dates and help continue electric service while payments are being processed, Warm said.

“GRU has been an amazing partner in working with our clients,” Ruff-Looney said. “They are not shutting off individuals’ utilities. They are allowing the time to get in the money.” 

The outreach event is from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday at GRU’s Administration Building, 301 S.E. 4th Ave.

Among the things people need to bring with them to the event are: unexpired photo ID, the two most recent electric bills for the home, social security cards for everyone in the household and records of all household income. 

Additional documentation needed includes food stamp benefit letters or Section 8 housing/HUD forms for households that receive those benefits, and a valid signed lease for anyone who is applying for utility deposit assistance. For people who are over 60 or who have children under 5, IDs or birth certificates are needed to document age.

A complete list of needed documents is available from the CFCAA’s website. The Alachua County number for CFCAA is 352-373-7667.

Ruff-Looney praised the CFCAA staff for their work with area clients.

“They are so dedicated to ensuring that everyone who has a need that they are out there to make sure those needs are met,” she said.

The Gainesville City Commission voted last year to raise GRU rates, which are among the highest in the state.

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