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Heating help available as Manatee chill persists

MANATEE — Today’s forecast promised a welcome, though tantalizingly brief, respite from recent cold weather.

Temperatures were expected to rise into the 60s with a not-so-frigid low in the high 40s after days during which the mercury dipped into the 30s.

But with freeze warnings likely to return for the weekend, Manatee County residents already struggling against the economic current may fear losing heat in their homes if they have fallen behind on power bills.

Local and state officials insist they are doing what they can to make sure people in economic distress get the help they need to stay warm.

Florida Power & Light has suspended disconnections of electricity at residences during the cold snap. And Manatee social service agencies are overseeing a glut of applications for federal and local assistance funds.

“We do not cut people off during cold weather,” FPL spokesman Mayco Villafana said Wednesday from his office in Miami. “We monitor the weather, and when it is cold like this we make a determination about whether to disconnect.”

Villafana said FPL makes daily decisions about disconnections in the 35 counties it serves. He did not reveal the temperature baseline for suspending disconnections, but said the company also considers the effect of storms and other inclement weather.

FPL and local social service agencies have several programs to help residents with utility bills.

The Manatee County Action Agency is the lead organization distributing federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funds. Executive Director Barbara Patten said the MCAA has filled its 180 appointments for LIHEAP funding in January.

She said the appointments normally fill up within the first 90 minutes on the first weekday of the month. It has been that way for about 18 months, she said.

“We’re not seeing a big change because of the weather,” Patten said. “It’s more the economy driving the crisis.”

Although the main criteria for qualifying for aid is an income less than 150 percent of the poverty level, Patten said the application rolls often are filled by those who meet even more specific guidelines such as families with children younger than age 5, families with a disabled person or families with a member older than age 65.

The Salvation Army also distributes LIHEAP funds and is still accepting applications. Social Services Manager Ellen Potrikus said applications for help have increased this month from an average of 57 per day in December to 63 in the first few days of January. Applications on the first day of eligibility went from 104 in December to 120 in January, she said.

The Salvation Army also has access to Care to Share funding. A supplement to LIHEAP, Care to Share is a program sponsored by FPL customers, employees and corporate contributions. Through 2008, the program had contributed $11.4 million to help those who meet low-income guidelines, according to figures supplied by FPL.

“We have seen how the economy has affected a certain group of our customers. We have seen the bad debt of the company increase. We want to hear from a customer when they’re having problems,” Villafana said. “We do understand when folks run into a situation when they have trouble paying.”