The Anoka County Community Action Program had already expected a surge in heating aid requests with this winter's bitter cold. Then came Gov. Mark Dayton's Feb. 4 executive order expanding eligibility for assistance.

Now, every ACCAP staff member who can process aid applications is doing so.

Debbie Miller, energy assistance director for the agency, said the number of people seeking applications for aid was up at least 15 percent in the first part of February. She's taken many calls from people who know they won't be able to pay their bills and need help, she said.

As of Friday, ACCAP had provided heating assistance to more than 5,000 households this winter. That was up from about 4,500 a couple of weeks ago, and an increase from the same time last year, and staffers are catching up with the influx of applicants.

ACCAP provides energy assistance through a federal operation, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The agency is one of many community action programs statewide that do so in conjunction with the state Commerce Department.

The metro area was in the midst of a string of subzero days when Dayton issued his order. It broadened eligibility to include households making up to 60 percent of the state median income. Before that, the threshold was 50 percent.

Under the revised guidelines, a family of four with a combined annual household income of less than $52,370 is eligible for assistance; for a family of two, the limit is about $36,000.

Once eligibility was expanded, workers at ACCAP and other agencies began reviewing previously denied applications to see if they now qualify.

Dayton's order was prompted in part by propane costs. But in Anoka County, that hasn't been as pressing an issue as elsewhere. Fewer than 10 percent of ACCAP's energy assistance clients use propane, as most heat with natural gas.

Cody Nelson is a student reporter on assignment to the Star Tribune.