Experts: Maine energy aid falls short

Posted Aug. 21, 2008, at 10:52 p.m.

AUGUSTA — Lawmakers were told by a panel of experts Thursday that energy aid for this winter from both state and federal sources is inadequate, with applications for aid up sharply and more Mainers eligible for the aid that is available.

Nicole Witherbee from the Maine Center for Economic Policy said the best estimate of what Congress will approve next month for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program in Maine is about $37 million, which, after related costs are deducted, translates into a benefit of about $415 based on 50,000 households getting help.

Maine will increase that benefit to $500 using state funds under the emergency plan Gov. John Baldacci announced last week. Based on price estimates, that $500 is three to four weeks’ worth of oil.

Witherbee said it is clear that with the expansion of eligibility for the program, there will be more applications. All Maine households with incomes 170 percent above the federal poverty level now qualify for LIHEAP. She said increases in energy costs have been dramatic and are broader than just the increase in heating fuel prices.

“In the last five years … the regional retail price of oil increased by 175 percent. Natural gas increased by 48 percent during that period and electric prices rose by 43 percent during that time period,” she said. “That trend should continue into 2009.”

Witherbee stressed that the impact on the purchasing power of poor Mainers for energy goes far beyond heating costs. She said travel costs are up with higher gasoline prices, and food costs are up because of higher transportation costs.

“And there are other costs going up with all the plastic products that are made with petroleum and all of the wrapping materials made of plastic,” she said. “The purchasing power of the poor is being hard hit.”

Irv Faunce of the Western Maine Community Action Program told members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee that his small agency is getting 50 to 100 calls a day for help. He said the agency already has 500 applications for LIHEAP, far more than usual at this time of year. The agency served 2,500 households last winter.

“It is an emergency now,” he said. “It’s hard to think of that today, August 21, with the sun shining outside.”

Faunce expressed concern that some people do not believe the state is facing a crisis and that some Mainers may be cold, or die from hypothermia, because they cannot stay warm next winter. He said he dreads the consequences of a severely cold winter.

“We all have to take this crisis very seriously,” he said.

Suzanne McCormick, president of the People’s Regional Opportunity Program, the community action program that serves Cumberland County, said her agency has seen a huge increase in calls and applications. She said part-time staff usually hired in October is handling applications already.

“We are seeing about 125 phone calls a day to our LIHEAP program, “ she said. “What is most concerning about those phone calls is the fact that 63 percent are coming from families that have never asked for help before.”

Both Faunce and McCormick said they are getting reports of similar call volumes and demands from the other community action agencies across the state.

Rep. Jeremy Fischer, D-Presque Isle, the House chairman of the committee, said many of his constituents have told him they are very worried that they will not have the resources to pay heating bills this winter. He said the state is facing a crisis and questioned whether the steps announced by Baldacci will be enough to make sure there is an adequate safety net this winter for what he called the working poor.

“We are seeing people, as soon as the temperature drops, they are out of oil already,” Fischer said. “They have no ability, with LIHEAP, to ever become eligible. But they simply have too many bills, with all the other things going on in their lives, to afford to buy heating oil.”

Fischer said there should be an emergency session of the Legislature to appropriate enough funds to make sure Mainers can get through the fall, and the new Legislature in December can decide what more needs to be done to get through the winter.

Rep. Jayne Giles, R-Belfast, said one person had described the coming winter as “Maine’s Hurricane Katrina” and that it will have a lasting impact on the state, with some Mainers moving to other states with warmer climates.

“We have got to do more to help people this winter,” she said.

Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, said while Mainers are certainly flooding agencies with calls, she questions whether the demand is actually higher because of the inability of many to reach the agencies. She has called the toll-free numbers of many agencies and said she was frustrated by automated responses and no return calls from messages left with the agencies.

“This is what people are going through when they ask for help,” she said. “We have got to do something to cut through the red tape for people.”

The panel meets again next month, and Fischer said members would ask for updates from local and state officials.

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