Nineteen years. One hundred and three million dollars. One-hundred and seventy-nine thousand families.
Louise Bergeron of Derry is retiring this month from her position as Energy Manager at Southern New Hampshire Services (SNHS). She leaves almost 200,000 households in the southern tier of New Hampshire a little warmer, and she leaves them with their dignity intact.
Bergeron came to SNHS in September of 1994. She had formerly been an office manager and a programmer at Sanders in Nashua, and said she was also blessed to spend several years as a full-time mother. She did extensive volunteer work at St. Thomas Aquinas School and Gilbert H. Hood Middle School. “You name it, I did it,” she said. She also helped her husband of 44 years, Richard, with his contracting business.
When the Energy Manager job opened, she had the bookkeeping, budgeting and management skills to qualify. And for the first 12 years she headed not only the Energy program but also the Weatherization program, using information she had gleaned from Richard’s building business. She laughed when she remembered those early years. In the beginning the Energy Program covered only Hillsborough County, and in her first year she served a whopping 4,300 households. In 2011, the last year for the Hillsborough-only program, she served four times as many, 16,880. The program expanded to other counties in Southern New Hampshire in July 2011.
Over 19 years she has seen less federal money coupled with a higher demand for services. She’s also seen an increased emphasis on keeping what she calls the integrity of the program. For Bergeron this means making sure the money goes to the correct households. It’s more work for her and her staff and demands more accountability of clients, she said.
There’s more verification required, including landlord statements, tax returns and number of people in household.
Bergeron sees three factors involved in the rise in applications. “One, it’s the economy,” she said. “There are middle-class people that have fallen on hard times, that never would have thought about asking before.” She has the statistics: 10 percent of the people who applied last year were first-time applicants.
“It’s a misconception,” she said, “that ‘the same people come here all the time.’” And she doesn’t see a lot of abuse, she said, noting, “they don’t come here for fun. It’s not a choice of, ‘Should we go to Fuel Assistance or go to a movie?’”
She has drilled her staff to remember that, she said, and to treat the clients with “dignity and respect.”
The second driving factor is the high cost of fuel, Bergeron said, and that’s driving even two-income families to her desk. The weather is the third factor, she said. Potential clients think they can ride it out, and then when the winter becomes rough, realize that they didn’t plan for the amount of fuel they will need.
“There is a misconception,” she said, “that working people don’t come.”
Though she’s a short-timer, Bergeron is using that time to her advantage and the advantage of potential clients. There’s still time to apply for assistance, she said. Applications are currently being accepted from seniors, people with disabilities and those with children under 6. On Sept. 1, applications will be accepted from everyone else, she said.
“The message we want to get out,” Bergeron said, “is that we are here to help you.”
Derry clients can go to the office on Crystal Avenue, in the old CVS building. The phone number is 965-3029. The number for the central Manchester office is 668-8010, and though Bergeron won’t be there, she’s trained a staff of people who want to help, she said.
In her early retirement, Bergeron will be cleaning out the house she’s lived in since 1978 and preparing it for sale. Richard is restoring and expanding a fishing cabin in their hometown of Berlin, and that will be their retirement home, Bergeron said. The couple has two adult children, Gary Bergeron and Katherine Bergeron.
Last year Bergeron and her staff took 20,828 applications. Of those, 15,899 households were granted energy assistance. Just under 5,000 were denied, for income that was over the maximum or for not providing the needed information, she said.
Bergeron occasionally meets her clients in person, though she’s more likely to talk on the phone. She handles all the appeals of denials in person and noted, “The buck stops here.” Over 19 years, she’s amassed a number of stories. “That’s what keeps me and my staff here,” she said. “The ones that are here long term, it’s what keeps them going. To hear a person crying on the phone and know that the oil truck is on the way.”