Zwick: Many Ariz. residents feel even more heat every summer - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Opinion

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Zwick: Many Ariz. residents feel even more heat every summer

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Posted: Monday, July 14, 2014 10:31 am

The numbers on the thermostat don’t always add up — or cool down — to good news. Particularly this time of year.

On average, Phoenix experiences 110 days with temperatures at or above 100 degrees. Almost 70 nights every year, the low doesn’t drop below 80.

More than likely, that’s not a problem if you can afford to lower the air conditioning in your home, even from 78 to 75.

But, in Phoenix alone, more than 300,000 households can’t. They need help paying their utility bills which, for some, not only means discomfort and uncertainty, but danger.

According to a 2010 Arizona Department of Health Services report, of the 102 heat-attributed deaths in the three years prior to the study, nearly 40 percent who died were over 65 years of age. This June, a man in his 60s died from heat-related illness in a home without air conditioning.

Those who struggle financially to cover their bills are forced to make choices that no one should face, especially the elderly: do I feed my family, buy my meds or pay my utility bill?

Utility companies in Arizona are doing what they can by offering payment assistance to those who qualify, but their support can only go so far. And, unfortunately, Arizona, like other warm-weather states, receives less than a fair share of funding through the Federal Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

For years, the LIHEAP funding formula has favored cold-weather states, a policy that originated in the program’s earliest years during the fuel crisis of the 1970s when heating-oil deliveries were impacted by the shortage. Unlike most states, Arizona experiences heating and cooling challenges year-round as northern communities bundle up against winter’s cold and snow and desert dwellers sweat through rugged summer heat.

Even a new funding formula that takes cooling costs into account when determining allocations doesn’t help much because a “hold harmless” mechanism prevents cold-weather states from receiving less than they did under the previous funding formula.

As it is right now, there is only funding to help about 10,100, or 3.4 percent, of the 300,000 eligible households, far below the 30 to 40 percent levels received by many cold-weather states.

And, the Administration’s proposal to reduce the LIHEAP appropriation for Federal Fiscal Year 2015 from $3.43 billion to $2.55 billion includes a clause to allocate all but $396 million under the old formula.

That means even more Arizona and Phoenix residents, many already on or near the financial cliff, will suffer even greater consequences when funding is again shifted back to cold-weather states.

So, the next time you eyeball the down-button on the thermostat, maybe you’ll consider contacting your elected officials to urge them to not only support full funding of a $5.1 billion national LIHEAP budget, but to ensure that Arizona receives its fair share of the dollars. Or, you might even make a tax-deductible donation of any level to the Home Energy Assistance Fund by visiting www.azcaa.org and selecting “Energy Programs.”

The end result might help take the heat off those who are sweating the most.

• Cynthia Zwick is executive director of the Arizona Community Action Association. Reach her at czwick@azcaa.org.

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