A program that helps low-income Anoka County residents pay their energy bills is bracing for an increase in applications after the long string of subzero days.

The Anoka County Community Action Program (ACCAP) already is slotting overtime hours to process the increase it expects when people get their January heating bills. How many people will seek help is hard to predict, but ACCAP Executive Director Patrick McFarland said walk-in visits last week were up 50 percent from the week before.

The money comes from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The funds are distributed by the Minnesota Department of Commerce to Community Action Programs throughout the state.

People can apply for aid once each heating season, which runs from October through May. Aid is based on need, and eligibility requirements factor in income level, type of fuel used and how vulnerable the applicant is to energy costs.

Under guidelines that were revised Tuesday by Gov. Mark Dayton, households earning up to 60 percent of the state median income can qualify for assistance. Before that, the limit was 50 percent. For a family of four, the gross household income limit is now $13,092 for the prior three months.

Last winter, ACCAP provided nearly $2 million in heating assistance.

As of last month, the federally funded program actually had about 300 fewer families than a year ago, but still was aiding about 4,500 families. And that was before the full impact of the cold spell.

At ACCAP, McFarland says that if money runs short, some private groups and relief organizations can help cover costs, McFarland said. But that amount often isn't significant, he said.

Applications are processed on a first-come, first-served basis.

"We'll do the best we can," McFarland said.

Further information about ACCAP is available at accap.org or by calling 763-783-4712. □

Cody Nelson is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment to the Star Tribune.