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Home weatherproofing aid for low-income families

—Jason Alderman

If you’re plagued by winter drafts and high heating bills but can’t afford to weatherproof your home, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) just might be able to help.

Since 1976, WAP has helped protect more than six million low-income households from summer’s heat and winter’s cold, significantly lowering both individual utility bills and overall national energy usage. And thanks to a dramatic $5 billion infusion from last year’s American Recovery and Investment Act, WAP is on target to weatherize—for free—an additional one million households a year.

Here’s how WAP works:

Each year, Congress appropriates funding to the DOE to administer the program. DOE then provides WAP funding and technical guidance to individual states, U.S. territories, and Indian tribes, which in turn fund local agencies to install energy conservation materials and make repairs in qualified low-income homes.

The 2009 Recovery Act increased the average household expenditure limit from $2,500 to $6,500. It also expanded WAP eligibility to include anyone whose income is at or below 200 percent of the poverty level for their household size. Each state sets its own program rules, however, so many have more generous eligibility criteria.

WAP provides energy-efficiency services that are tailored to each home, whether a single- or multi-family dwelling or mobile home. Homeowners and renters can apply, although renters must obtain written permission from their landlords.

As many as thirty million families are eligible for WAP. Those receiving Supplemental Security Income or Aid to Families with Dependent Children are automatically eligible. In other cases, preference is usually given to people over age sixty, families with one or more disabled members, and families with children.

To see if you are eligible for WAP, visit www.eere.energy.gov/weatherization, which contains application instructions, contact information for individual state programs and local weatherization service providers, frequently asked questions, and a step-by-step description of how the process works.

As part of the application process, you will be asked to provide proof of income and other qualifying information. If accepted, you will receive a professional energy consultation by the agency. They will conduct a home energy audit during which they will likely:

  • Analyze your utility bills;
  • Test infiltration of outside air into your home;
  • Inspect your home and equipment for safety; and
  • Determine the most cost-effective energy conservation measures for your home.

Depending on what they find, the agency will then conduct needed repairs and equipment installation, which might include: installing wall, floor, and attic insulation; sealing and repairing ducts; reducing air infiltration and pressure imbalances; and tuning, repairing, or replacing heating and cooling systems, as needed. You also will receive tips on ways to further reduce your utility bills on an ongoing basis.

Even if you aren’t eligible for WAP, you may qualify for short-term utility bill assistance through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and administered by individual states. To learn more, visit www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ocs/liheap.


Rio Rancho group offers property tax workshop

Feeling sticker-shocked by your 2010 Sandoval County property tax bill? Want to learn how you can use the same tools big developers do to push for lower taxes on your home?

Rio Rancho Cares is a local grassroots group that will present a workshop on how to appeal your Sandoval County 2010 property tax assessment on February 25 from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. at Sabana Grande Recreation Center, 4110 Sabana Grande Avenue in Rio Rancho. The keynote speaker will be Timothy Eichenberg, New Mexico State Senator and former State of New Mexico Property Tax Division Director. He will address New Mexico’s current tax climate, including “tax lightning.”

The workshop will include property tax exemptions available under New Mexico state law, a step-by-step guide on how to appeal your home’s assessed value through the Sandoval County Assessor’s Office, a workbook including form letters and other documents required to file an appeal, plus a printout of the PowerPoint presentation, and audience questions and answers. A $5 registration fee (cash only) to cover the workbook printing cost will be collected at the door. For a map and directions to Sabana Grande Community Center, visit mapquest.com or call the Center at 891-7255.

Sandoval County property tax assessments will be mailed on March 1, 2010. By law, homeowners have only thirty calendar days to file an appeal. For more information on the Tax Academy, email RioRanchoCares@cableone.net or call (505) 990-2292.


Earning higher interest — with a checking account

—Jason Alderman

People stash their money in safe havens such as savings accounts, Treasury Bills and Certificates of Deposit for a variety of reasons. It could be fear of losing money in the stock market, the security of knowing their deposits are government-insured or, with bank accounts at least, being able to quickly withdraw funds when needs arise.

In return for that convenience and security, however, interest earned usually doesn’t keep pace with inflation.

When the economy was cooking a few years ago, 5 percent interest rates and higher on long-term CDs were not uncommon. But when the recession hit and the inflation rate began dropping, so did interest rates. These days, traditional savings accounts commonly earn just a fraction of 1 percent interest, while many CDs and T-Bills aren’t much better.

So how can you earn more interest on insured savings these days? Would you believe a checking account?

Although checking accounts usually earn little or no interest, in the past few years a product called high-yield reward checking has gained in popularity. These accounts often pay much higher interest rates than regular checking or savings accounts – or even long-term CDs in the current market.

In addition to paying higher interest, financial institutions offering these accounts typically will refund each month a certain amount in transaction fees charged by other banks for using their ATMs. For smaller institutions, this helps make up for not having their own extensive ATM network.

However, high-yield checking accounts usually come with restrictions that may include:

  • A minimum number (usually 10-15) of monthly debit card purchases.
  • Direct deposit (like a paycheck) and/or automatic debit transactions (e.g., monthly gym membership dues).
  • Issuing electronic statements only.
  • There may be a cap on account balances eligible for the high yield (commonly $25,000 or less); over that cap, the rest may earn a much lower rate. (There usually is no minimum account balance required, as there often is with regular savings accounts.)
  • Accounts may be limited to local customers only, although many are available nationally.

If you don’t meet all requirements during a particular month, the interest rate paid for that month could drop substantially, but typically will bounces back once you again meet all conditions.

Keep in mind a few other factors when considering a high-yield checking account:

  • Interest rates are variable, so watch for notification of changes.
  • Make sure the bank is a member of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation so that up to $250,000 per depositor, per institution will be insured. Search “Bank Find” at www.fdic.gov.
  • Similar coverage is provided to credit unions by the National Credit Union Administration. Search “Find a Credit Union” under the “Data and Services” tab at www.ncua.gov.
  • Numerous websites track banks and credit unions offering high-yield accounts including www.highyieldcheckingdeals.com, www.checkingfinder.com and www.bankingmyway.com.

You won’t get rich from the interest earned on these accounts, but in this economy every extra dollar helps.


Heinrich encourages charitable contributions for relief in Haiti

Representative Martin Heinrich was successful in helping push original bipartisan legislation that accelerated the income tax benefits for charitable contributions for the relief effort in Haiti. The legislation allows individuals that make charitable contributions to victims of the earthquake in Haiti to claim the charitable deduction for these contributions on their 2009 tax return instead of having to wait until next year to claim these deductions on their 2010 tax return.

 “The recent outpouring of support for the people of Haiti is telling of the generosity and compassion of our great nation,” said Rep. Heinrich. “Families are finding ways to give, even during these hard economic times. My hope is that this bill will make giving easier and will accelerate the much needed support for the earthquake victims in Haiti.”

In January of 2005, Congress enacted this type of relief for individuals that made charitable contributions to victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami that occurred in late December of 2004. That bill (H.R. 241 in the 109th Congress) passed the House of Representatives without objection and subsequently passed the Senate by unanimous consent.  The House and Senate unanimously adopted H.R 4462, the Haiti tax relief legislation cosponsored by Rep. Heinrich.

Taxpayers who itemize deductions on their 2009 return qualify for this special tax relief provision, enacted January 22. Only cash contributions made to these charities after January 11, 2010, and before March 1, 2010, are eligible. This includes contributions made by text message, check, credit card or debit card.

Federal law requires that taxpayers keep a record of any deductible donations they make. For donations by text message, a telephone bill will meet the recordkeeping requirement if it shows the name of the donee organization, the date of the contribution and the amount of the contribution. For cash contributions made by other means, be sure to keep a bank record, such as a cancelled check, or a receipt from the charity showing the name of the charity and the date and amount of the contribution.

Taxpayers can benefit from their donations, almost immediately, by filing their 2009 returns early, filing electronically and choosing direct deposit. Refunds take as few as ten days and can be directly deposited into a savings, checking or brokerage account, or used to purchase Series I U.S. savings bonds.

Additionally, Rep. Heinrich has launched a resource page on his Web site for constituents to access information on donating to relief efforts and inquiring about the welfare and whereabouts of friends and family in Haiti.


Santa Ana Cafe

Hyatt Regency Tamaya raises funds for local non-profits

The Santa Ana Café at the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa provided charitable gifts of one-thousand dollars to both the Roadrunner Food Bank and the Animal Humane New Mexico during the month of December, 2009. This was achieved by the hotel matching one-half the price of Santa Ana Café diner’s breakfast or luncheon meals through the month and then donating those monies to the diners’ choice of charities.  “We are very pleased to have helped people and animals in need this holiday season,” said Jerry Westenhaver, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa.

The Roadrunner Food Bank is New Mexico’s largest non-profit organization dedicated to ending hunger in New Mexico and Animal Humane New Mexico is an independent, non-profit organization that improves the lives of companion animals through sheltering, adoption, education, veterinary services and programs that reduce pet overpopulation. The Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa is located on 500 acres on the Pueblo of Santa Ana, adjacent to the Sandia Mountains along the Rio Grande River.

 

     

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