Agencies have trouble identifying money to help Mainers heat their homes

By Mal Leary, Capitol News Service
Posted Dec. 27, 2011, at 7:57 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine State Housing Authority Director Dale McCormick, Efficiency Maine Executive Director Michael Stoddard and Gov. Paul LePage’s staff met into the evening Tuesday but emerged from the meeting saying they are still “a few days” away from providing the governor with a plan for additional heating assistance this winter.

“We made good progress but we are not ready with a report,” said Energy Office Director Ken Fletcher. “Our goal is to keep people warm and that is what we are putting together for a plan.”

He said the effort will be a multipronged effort to stretch the available Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program funds from the federal government. With the latest congressional action, Maine will have $38.5 million, below last year’s level of $54 million.

“We are looking at ways to make that go just as far as we can,” Fletcher said, “this is not just about more dollars for oil.”

But last week LePage was clear in an interview that he expected the agencies to come up with assistance to supplement the federal funds and to have a plan to him by Tuesday’s meeting. He said his office has been working with the agencies for several weeks and that it is time to act.

“Winter is now, we have to solve the problem now,” he said. “There are readily available funds in their organizations that can help us with this problem.”

Fletcher insisted keeping some low-income Mainers from having to buy oil or another fuel through immediate weatherization efforts is as good as providing them dollars to buy additional fuel. He said weatherization also would have long-term benefits for the families involved.

“We are directing $5 million be targeted to homes that heat with electricity, targeting the ones that have the highest level of use first,” Stoddard said. “We think we can get to about 700 homes with that.”

He said those homes would be weatherized this winter to reduce immediately the heating bills for those families. He said the agency also is seeking federal approval to shift a million dollars from a grant to buy alternative heating systems such as pellet stoves.

“We believe we can get these homes done this winter,” he said.

Stoddard said another initiative is under way to reduce consumption of electricity by distributing three-packs of compact fluorescent bulbs through the Good Shepherd Food-Bank system to low-income Mainers across the state.

“That is a little thing, but it will help people with electric bills,” he said.

McCormick refused to specify any of the actions her agency has taken or will take to address the governor’s stated goal of $15 million in additional help.

“We’re fumbling because the report isn’t done and it’s premature to give you numbers before the report is done,” she said. The Maine State Housing Authority distributes the federal LIHEAP money and she said that is the only money the agency has for LIHEAP.

McCormick said the report will detail the ways her agency will help in keeping poor Mainers warm this heating season. An estimated 65,000 Mainers are eligible for LIHEAP.

Stoddard said the state is in a better position now than when the agencies first were approached by the governor to help with LIHEAP funding. He said his agency has both state and federal restrictions on how it can spend money that comes from federal grants and a tax on electric bills.

“That’s got to go to the benefit of electric customers,” he said.

Fletcher said savings at the 800 homes targeted by Efficiency Maine will mean the overall amount of LIHEAP funds will go further than originally planned for those using oil or other energy sources.

“We’re not looking at it as just buying more oil, but how can we manage that total resource,” he said.

Fletcher said he expects the report will be ready for the governor in a few days and he then will release all of the details. He did not say whether the total efforts of the two agencies will be the equivalent of the $15 million target set by LePage.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/12/27/politics/agencies-have-trouble-identifying-money-to-help-mainers-heat-their-homes/ printed on September 16, 2014