ESCANABA - The Upper Peninsula Commission for Area Progress (UPCAP) has experienced a more than 1,000 percent increase in gas and heating assistance requests this year due to the on-going propane shortage.
Representatives from several state agencies met with state legislators, local service organizations and constituents to address the propane shortage during a state delegation meeting at UPCAP in Escanaba Monday morning.
According to Terry Thomma, administrative manager for UPCAP and its 2-1-1 Center, which assists in connecting people with community services and resources, the number of calls the center received requesting gas or heating assistance between Jan. 1 to Feb. 7 in 2013 was 19 calls U.P.-wide; this number has skyrocketed to 227 so far in 2014. Of this number, approximately 90 percent are a result of residents short on propane.
"Delta County is one of the highest counties that we've been receiving calls from," she said. "Since Jan. 1, we've gotten, just for Delta County, about 50 calls specific to this."
During the meeting, Thomma noted the 2-1-1 Call Center has been inundated with calls in the past three to four weeks by many people who have never had to request services.
"We have scheduled follow-ups with probably 80 percent of our callers that have called and need propane," she said. "Those follow-ups are going to be starting probably this week going on through the end of the month just to see if they received the help that they called for."
Thomma also shared unanonymous phone calls from two callers who needed propane assistance - including one woman in tears concerned about her and her animals' well-being.
The state agencies attending the meeting agreed to continue having their various departments work together to understand and identify what has been working well in managing the propane shortage and what areas need improvement when moving forward to address the crisis.
Those representing the state of Michigan at the meeting included the departments of License and Regulatory Affairs, Natural Resources, Human Services, Attorney General, Michigan State Police, and a representative for Gov. Snyder. Also present were local service organizations such as Community Action Agency, St. Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army, and state legislators.
"The reason they're all here is because the governor has been acting on this issue to try and improve the supply situation in the state in addition to making sure that the state of Michigan is doing everything it can in terms of heating assistance for those who have been affected," said Dave Nyberg, Gov. Rick Snyder's Upper Peninsula representative.
Snyder has announced several initiatives the state is taking to help Michiganders affected by the ongoing propane shortage. In December, he issued a state of emergency executive order to lift time-of-service restrictions for motor carriers transporting propane so they could more easily transport it to areas in need.
Snyder renewed the executive order again in January and February.
"The new actions that have been taken at the recommendation of our agencies is an additional $7 million in Low Income Heating and Energy Assistant Program funding," said Nyberg. "That needs to be approved by the Legislature through a supplemental bill."
This would be an addition to the $7 million already devoted to deliverable fuel heating assistance from the Michigan Energy Assistance Program.
The DNR has also aided in efforts by issuing fuelwood permits much earlier than its usual April 1 start date.
In addition, the DNR is working with the Michigan Association of Timbermen to connect people with loggers selling fuelwood.
The Michigan Veterans Trust Fund is another option with available funds for combat veterans who qualify for certain emergencies such as the propane shortage, noted Nyberg.
The state also continues working to improve the supply chain for propane coming into Michigan from other states that have it at a cheaper cost, he said. Snyder has continued working with the Michigan Propane Gas Association and rail industry to address the supply chain and last week more than 1.3 million gallons of propane were delivered via rail to storage facilities in Marysville, Mich.
A Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) loan program is also being offered to propane dealers and distributors struggling to deal with high propane demand and restricted supply.
"A lot of the propane dealers are required to pay cash upfront now with the supply shortage," said Nyberg. "This program is meant to be available to propane dealers who could use that loan assistance to purchase more propane and get it to the end user. That program is a participation loan up to 49 percent and it's a cooperative with local banks so propane dealers can call the MEDC and see if they qualify to use that program."
Following the meeting, State Rep. Ed McBroom said Monday's meeting was a great opportunity to meet with other state officials, agencies, constituents and service organizations about their concerns.
McBroom commented on the propane shortage, which he said is multi-faceted and, in some cases, could have been prevented.
"I've reached out to folks who are both in Lansing and in Washington about what we can do in the future to make sure this kind of poor planning doesn't happen again - so that's one important part," he said.
In the meantime, however, McBroom believes there will be a long-term effect felt from the shortage.
"Folks have to deal with the ripple effects of their own personal budgets and I foresee this even going into next year because the dealers who had to take out loans to buy expensive gas - that's going to affect their ability to sell gas competitively next fall," he said. "What's really troubling to me is how do we help folks buy propane and how do we keep the network of dealers that we depend on going so they're still here next fall when we have to start buying propane again?"
Residents in need of heating assistance are asked to call 2-1-1 or visit michigan.gov/heatingassistance for help.