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Applications for HEAP funding inundate Social Services offices

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Applications for the Home Energy Assistance Program continue to pour into county Department of Social Services offices as the winter holds on with an icy grip.

“Everybody knows this is the worst winter we’ve had in a long time,” St. Lawrence County Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, said. “Without this, some people are not going to be able to pay their fuel bill.”

As of Feb. 19, the county Department of Social Services has approved 11,861 applications and has 1,500 applications pending.

Telephone lines that ring continually busy and delays in benefits have frustrated some residents, who worry that their applications will not be taken care of before the program ends in mid-March.

“The pending applications will be processed,” DSS Commissioner Christopher R. Rediehs said. “We’re gaining on them even though there’s more every week.”

Legislator Alex A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler, wondered whether the Legislature’s decision to closely trim spending this year contributed to the backlog.

“When your budgets are cut so close, you have no flexibility,” he said.

St. Lawrence County devoted as much help as it could to the program, which is 100 percent federally reimbursed, but is expecting a cut in money for administration this year, County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said.

The county is trying to call back a temporary employee to deal with the backlog and has approved some overtime, but wants to hold down county costs, Mr. Rediehs said.

“We’re trying to minimize that,” he said.

Overtime will be approved in Jefferson County for DSS staff to catch up on 615 pending regular HEAP and nine pending emergency HEAP applications, Commissioner Theresa W. Gaffney said. The office continues to receive 10 to 15 applications per day.

“We haven’t been told to stop with regular,” she said. “I think applications have been pretty steady since the program opened.”

So far this season, Jefferson County DSS has processed 3,167 regular and emergency HEAP applications, not including those eligible for the program through Temporary Assistance or food stamps.

In Lewis County, Caroline J. Virkler, principal social welfare examiner, said she felt the department had HEAP applications under control.

Just more than a month ago, Mrs. Virkler would have told a different story.

“We were really in bad shape at the end of January,” she said.

To catch up, the county approved overtime. Caseworkers have 25 applications pending and have processed 3,300 applications since Nov. 18.

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