Special Report: LIHEAP

Posted Aug. 04, 2008, at 12 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine&nbsp- The federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, traditionally has helped needy residents pay 60 percent of their winter heating bills.

That will not be the case this year.

“We’ re anticipating [an average] $415 for [each of] 51,000 households — that’ s all,” JoAnn Choate, MaineHousing’ s housing and fuel assistance program director, said Friday.

With the cost of heating fuel now averaging around $4.60 a gallon, “that won’ t even do 100 gallons,” she said. “Eight to 10 days of heat is what we’ re anticipating it will provide.”

MaineHousing allocates the federal funds it receives to 10 community action agencies across the state that disburse the home-heating money to residents who make less than 60 percent of the average state income.

In Maine, where the average income for a four-person family is $63,501, the LIHEAP cutoff is $38,101 for a family of four.

Last winter, Mainers received $38.8 million in LIHEAP funds allocated to 50,849 households. However, with an increase in applications, about 8,000 applied but were denied because of a lack of funds, according to the Maine Housing Web site.

The situation for the coming winter is serious, Choate said.

“It’ s not very good,” she said. “This is going to be a very unique thing as far as not being able to provide the assistance.”

The LIHEAP budget is “not expected to be settled in Washington until January & and we’ re anticipating about $24 million, with $19 million going for fuel assistance” for Maine, Choate said.

There is a possibility that emergency federal funds will be released in time to help, she said.

“Our congressional delegation and the governor’ s office are working constantly trying to get the president to release $100 million in emergency funds, which expire on September 30,” she said. The federal emergency fund now has $120 million in it, and $100 million will expire if it’ s not used, she said.

“It can only be used for this emergency crisis,” Choate said.

If released, Maine would get only a portion of the funds, but every cent counts this year.

With winter’ s cold knocking at the door, people should start thinking about ways to heat their homes and make them energy-efficient now, Choate said.

“They cannot wait,” she said, stressing that 84 percent of the households in Maine rely on oil or kerosene for heat.

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