FROM THOSE wonderful workers at the state Department of Public Welfare - the ones who will soon have to start verifying the assets of up to 1.8 million recipients of food stamps in the state - comes a massive backlog of applications for heating assistance that could lead to utility shut-offs for tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians as soon as next week.

Lawyers from Community Legal Services sent a letter Tuesday to the Public Utility Commission asking that utility customers who filed for help from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) not be penalized by the Welfare Department's inability to process more than 50,000 applications when the winter moratorium expires Sunday. They want the moratorium extended for those customers who have filed a LIHEAP application.

The PUC should act on this request.

State law gives the state 30 days to process cash-assistance applications for LIHEAP, which provides grants to low-income people for help with fuel bills. All of the current backlog is from 30 days or more; a third have been on file for more than 90 days.

More than 34,000 Philadelphia customers are awaiting LIHEAP assistance - almost half of the total backlog.

Utilities are generally prevented from shutting off for nonpayment from Dec. 1 to April 1.

This backlog is not just a problem for Philadelphia customers, but has impact on the financial health of utilities, especially PGW. Many shut-offs result in families' abandoning properties, which makes it that much harder for PGW to collect what it's owed. And massive shut-offs have an impact on communities and on the city as a whole, because people who do abandon their homes will often put further stresses on the city's social services.

The larger problem is a state agency apparently in such disarray that it can't handle its workload. The reason for this disarray is no mystery: With cuts over the past eight years, there are fewer DPW workers, and higher caseloads as a result of a harsh economy. And against this backdrop, we have a governor and a DPW chief who want to add more controls on who and how many people receive benefits.

A new asset test for food-stamp recipients, for example, begins May 1 that will require state workers to review and verify the assets of nearly 2 million food-stamp recipients. Given the LIHEAP backlog, it's fair to assume that this food-stamp change could be a disaster movie in the making.

Clearly, neither Gov. Corbett nor DPW Secretary Gary Alexander acknowledge that imposing additional controls takes more time and resources. Or maybe they do, and they believe that if they make it more difficult for people to reach the DPW and get their requests processed, they'll simply give up.

That's not welfare reform. That's a massive failure in management - and in governing.