MARQUETTE - After meeting with lawmakers, community action agencies and propane suppliers in Delta County Monday, state officials said propane supplies to the Upper Peninsula have improved over the past week and they are now hoping retail prices will soon follow wholesale prices in their downward trajectory.
"I think we feel a lot better on supply than we did a week ago," said Steve Arwood, director of the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. "But longer term, the price - supply-demand - price is going to be an issue for a while until this all comes together."
A Michigan Public Service Commission survey found the average propane price highest in Michigan in the central U.P. at $5.05 per gallon, followed by an average of $5.02 in the western U.P. and $4.19 in the eastern U.P.
Downstate, the average in the survey was $3.75 per gallon in the northern Lower Peninsula, $3.78 in southeast Michigan and $3.31 in the southwestern part of the state.
Although state officials concede higher prices have been reported, the highest per gallon propane price found in the survey was $5.59 in the western U.P. and the lowest was at $1.89 in southwest Michigan.
"There are people that are very, very concerned about the affordability of propane right now," Arwood said.
So far, roughly 300 complaints of price gouging have been reported to the Michigan Attorney General's Office and are being investigated. Those reports are scattered across the state, including the U.P.
David Nyberg, U.P. spokesman for Gov. Rick Snyder, said a big help to investigators would be having a receipt available when making a price gouging report.
Snyder said that in addition to $7 million allocated in deliverable fuel heating assistance from the Michigan Energy Assistance Program, the Michigan Department of Human Services was working with the state Legislature to provide another $7 million in Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program money.
So far, about 260 households in the U.P. have been granted propane or heating assistance. Counties logging the highest number of those requests included Marquette and Houghton with 47 each and Delta County with 32.
Terrence Beurer, DHS deputy director, said the agency wants to serve as many people as it can.
"We want no one to go without," Beurer said. "We're doing everything that we possibly can to get the assistance to those who truly need it."
He said the agency's work is keying on vulnerable citizens.
"We're doing all kinds of things to make sure they're not running out of propane," Beurer said. "To the point where when we make home calls, we're even checking their tanks. See where they're at and then helping them secure whatever they need to get a fill."
State officials suggested those concerned about running out of propane call 211 for assistance, rather than waiting too long.
Nyberg said the DHS - at the direction of the governor - and lawmakers are working on adjusting financial assistance qualifying limits.
"Because of the price point increases, the ability of people who don't fall within that low-income threshold, where do they fit," Nyberg asked. "We're increasing the standard for who's eligible for low-income heating assistance to make sure that we're catching folks before they fall through the cracks."
Nyberg said veterans can also get heating financial assistance.
"In the U.P., we're being told by the (Veterans Affairs) agency that a high-percentage of combat veterans qualify for emergency assistance through the Michigan Veterans Trust Fund Program," Nyberg said. "And all they have to do to get information about that is call 211."
The number of callers to the 211 assistance line has spiked dramatically during the new year. A total of 227 calls had been received from Jan. 1 through Feb. 7, compared to 19 over the same time period last year and 18 the year before. Heating assistance calls for the entire year in 2013 totaled 164.
Arwood said his agency was tapped by Snyder to "pull together all the various state departments that have an ability to assist with the situation to create a collaborative."
Those groups are involved in helping residents with heating and financial assistance, easing supply chain problems or on emergency designations and easing road weight restrictions.
Among the additional efforts, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is selling fuelwood permits earlier than the traditional April 1 start date. The 90-day permits cost $20 for personal use collection on designated state land, allowing collection of up to five standard cords of wood per household.
The Michigan Economic Development Corp. is providing a loan program to assist propane dealers and distributors having trouble purchasing wholesale propane to meet their contract demands.
Arwood's agency is working with the Michigan Propane Gas Association, prepared to take action if customers can't get propane tanks filled because providers are in short supply. State law allows permits for companies to fill the tanks of others when necessary.
The collaborative has been meeting every other day and members thought a trip to the U.P. Monday was a good idea to "make sure we got it right."
"We're pretty certain the supply situation is going to get better probably every day," Arwood said. "But if there's something that we're really not able to get our hands around, we'll be back and make sure we get to where we need to understand it better."