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Computer glitch slows energy help
By SCOTT BURKE, Staff Writer At a time when temperatures are dropping and fuel prices rising, a computer glitch has slowed efforts to provide energy assistance for thousands of low-income families statewide.
But state officials assured an angry Senate committee this week that applications will be taken manually and aid will still be provided -- just a bit slower.
"We are taking care of the people who need help by increasing the (number of workers) and taking applications manually," state Human Services Secretary Lynda Fox told the Senate Finance Committee in Annapolis on Tuesday.
Because the news comes when winter temperatures have been colder than normal and the cost of natural gas -- the common heating fuel in Anne Arundel -- is at record highs, senators were not happy.
"We want to make sure every measure will be taken (to fix the glitch), and provide us with proof that this won't happen again," said Sen. James E. "Ed" DeGrange Sr., D-Glen Burnie.
Ms. Fox first reported the computer problem to the committee at its Jan. 16 meeting. It began to occur in October when the Office of Home Energy Programs tried to switch to software that would hold more information to include the new Electric Universal Service Program.
But the new system froze from time to time, preventing the department from processing the applications for that program and the Maryland Energy Assistance Program. The old system had already been discarded, said Elyn Garrett Jones, department spokesman.
Ms. Fox said she is unsure when the computer system will be fixed, but the 20 Department of Human Services offices statewide will still review all applications and continue to provide funding.
So far, Ms. Fox said her agency has received 50,000 applications for both programs since July. She couldn't say how many have been approved for funding.
Last year, the $17.2 million Maryland Energy Assistance Program helped 61,000 households buy heating fuel across the state, 1,648 of them in Anne Arundel County, Ms. Jones said.
This year, the program has increased to $31 million to cope with higher heating costs.
The Electric Universal Service Program, funded through fees collected from all electric customers, offers $34 million to help pay for electric heating costs.
Ms. Fox said her department is projecting 90,000 households will receive aid by the time the fiscal year ends on June 30.
The average amount of aid given this year for recipients of the Maryland Energy Assistance Program is $366, and $235 for the Electric Universal Service Program.
Senators, however, were concerned about the future of the programs.
"I'm getting to a boiling point where this is not acceptable," said committee Chairman Thomas L. Bromwell, D-Baltimore County. "This is January and your office knew about this since October."
He instructed Department of Human Service officials to meet with Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum, D-Montgomery, to provide updates on the progress of fixing the computer glitch.
In fact, the committee even threatened that if the department doesn't fix the problem soon, then they may turn over the responsibility of providing aid to low income families to the utility companies themselves.
"They all want to see it taken care of. They don't want to be blamed for this," he said.
Reba Lawrence, manager of the Community Action Agency which administers the funds for the programs in Anne Arundel County, said the glitch has not affected her office.
"It has not stopped us from from doing our job one bit. It has not delayed fuel to anyone. We have worked manually before," she said.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), January 26, 2001