Friday, February 16, 2001

Some balk at Project Thaw

Lawmakers: Half of aid not OK'd yet

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As thousands of people seek handouts offered by Ohio Gov. Bob Taft to help pay heating bills, some state lawmakers question whether the program should have been promised in the first place.

        They say they've been hoodwinked by the governor, who announced the $45 million Project Thaw before legislators approved it — and who is now pushing for quick passage.

[photo] Rhonda Freeze sits with more than 1,000 applications for aid from the state's Project Thaw. Ms. Freeze is assistant administrator in Butler County for the program.
(Dick Swaim photo)
| ZOOM |
        “He has put us in the position of not funding this and making us look like bad guys, or funding it,” State Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Township, said Thursday. “Some of us might question if it is a proper function of our state money. ... But it's difficult to have answers, given the climate we're in.”

        A governor's spokesman said Thursday that Project Thaw has bipartisan support among House and Senate leaders and is in no danger of being rejected.

        “If that is a view by some, it is by far a minority view,” said Kevin Kellems. “The funding is in the pipeline.”

        Project Thaw was introduced into a House committee this week for the first time since Mr. Taft announced the plan last month.

        In Southwest Ohio, more than 8,000 applications have piled up on the desks of county administrators in Butler, Hamilton and Warren counties.

    Hamilton County: Requested $5 million from the state and has received 6,511 applications.
    Butler County: Requested $1 million from the state and has received 1,700 applications.
    Warren County: Requested $250,000 from the state and has received 152 applications.
        “It's a lot of work,” said Rhonda Freeze, assistant program administrator in Butler County. “We have received around 1,700 applications, and we have approved and processed about 1,500.” Warren County has received 152 applications.

        In Hamilton County, more than 6,500 applications have been received and there is still plenty of money to give away.

        “We are not at the bottom of the glass in Hamilton County,” said Denise Winkler, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services.

        County officials don't know yet how much they will get from the state for Project Thaw, which will end March 30 or when the $45 million is tapped out.

        The program offers a one-time payment equal to half of one utility bill, up to $250. Anyone whose income is within 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline — $34,100 for a family of four; $22,500 for a couple and $16,700 for a single person — is eligible for the program.

        But because state legislators have yet to approve the program, county officials say they have been paying only on applications for families.

        That's because Project Thaw comes from two pools of money — $25 million from the state's Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, which does not require a legislative nod, and $20 million from the general revenue fund.

        That $20 million is what lawmakers are contesting.

        “It's ludicrous,” said Rep. Tom Brinkman, R-Cincinnati. “I don't know how you get to do this. First you've got to have a bill, then you pass the law and then you do (the program). That's what they teach in eighth-grade civics.”

        Within days of Mr. Taft's announcement, Mr. Brinkman said an ad campaign was launched and applications were shipped to the state's 88 counties.

        Mr. Kellems said the governor is not worried that Project Thaw could be jeopardized by a House vote. If it was rejected, he said Mr. Taft would find another way to make it happen.

        “Whatever minor misunder standing there was in fine-tuning and delivering the much-needed aid has been worked out,” he said.

        Nationwide, nearly 5 million households, about a quarter more than last year, are seeking government help in paying heating bills, according to a national survey by the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association.

        So far this year, the number of households seeking help is 1.1 million more than last year as prices for natural gas, home heating oil and propane increased 40 percent.

        Ohio was among seven states with more than 150,000 households applying for help. The others are New York, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and New Jersey.

        Mr. Brinkman said he fears that Project Thaw will become an entitlement program that people will expect the state to offer every year from now on.

        “What happens next year when it's cold?” he asked.

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