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Pat Wrice and Sen. Bob Duff (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

The gap between what low-income families in Connecticut owe in energy bills and what they can afford has grown again as government assistance has decreased, according to an annual report released Thursday by Operation Fuel.

The nonprofit group takes donations and tries to help people having trouble heating their homes by providing grants, which average about $500 per household. This winter, the group expects to provide about $3 million in energy assistance to low-income families in Connecticut.

But according to a report the group publishes every year, the need for help is growing. At a Hartford press conference, Roger D. Colton, the economist who prepared the report, said the home energy affordability gap for the 295,000 Connecticut households at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level increased to about $700 million.

That means the average low-income household owed $2,363 more than what they could afford to pay. The report considers energy expenses of more than 6 percent of a family’s income to be unaffordable.

Patricia Wrice, executive director of Operation Fuel, said the affordability gap has grown significantly since the first report was issued in 2006 when the gap was $255 million.

“We have many households — low income households and now moderate income households — really drowning in a sea of unaffordable energy costs, forcing them . . . to make some very difficult and scary choices,” she said. “These choices are not lifestyle choices, these choices are survival choices.”

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Alice Rosenthal (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Alice Rosenthal, a lawyer for the Center for Children’s Advocacy, said that in some cases those choices include whether to buy food or heat their homes. She said those decisions can have negative health and developmental impacts on the children living in those homes. She said many of the families she works with can’t put food on the table, pay their rent, or cover their utility costs.

“Low income families must choose, literally daily, between heat and food. In the cold winter months these families are spending less money on food because they’re choosing to heat over eating,” she said.

Colton said around 40 percent of Connecticut households experience an energy affordability gap. And although fuel prices have remained relatively steady, Colton said the federal government’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program grants have declined. This year, he said the federal grants covered only 12 percent of the state’s affordability gap.

“Due to the decreasing reliability of federal fuel assistance funds, even though the gap in Connecticut continues to increase, the ability of public monies to meet that gap is small and decreasing,” he said.

Operation fuel has been for years to see Connecticut enact a low-income discounted energy rate as other New England states have done. Colton reiterated that recommendation Thursday.

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Roger Colton (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

“The gap is big. The gap is growing bigger . . . There is an ability at the state level to adopt a program which other states have successfully adopted to meet that gap,” he said.

Sen. Bob Duff, co-chairman of the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee, said the state has not recently considered legislation to enact such a discounted rate. He said his committee would need to discuss the idea.

“First, I think we need to have the policy discussion, then we can talk about how it gets paid for and we also need to look at what other states are doing,” he said.

In the meantime, Duff said he hoped Thursday’s press conference would help raise awareness of the energy affordability disparity and encourage other residents to contribute to Operation Fuel and help out their neighbors.

“I believe that if residents of the state knew how much the gap existed and that we’ve been trying to bring attention to it for many years, I think that they would ask to help,” he said.