BANGOR, Maine — It was more than 20 years ago when Eddington resident Rick Dumond first met U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe.
“I remember you were digging into someone about oil prices or something and I’ve voted for you ever since,” he told Snowe.
Back then, Dumond was an oil truck delivery driver. On Thursday morning, he was again meeting with Maine’s senior senator, this time sitting across a conference table from her as a consumer looking for help with his oil bill through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
“I use 450 to 500 gallons of heating oil a year. Last year my maximum benefit was $900 and this year it’s $225,” said Dumond, who has been a LIHEAP recipient for the last four to five years. “Last year I set my thermostat at 64 and this year it’s at 59.”
Dumond, a Social Security recipient who works part time, was one of 15 people — all of whom were wearing sweaters, jackets or coats — invited to attend an informal conference with Snowe at the Penquis agency’s headquarters.
The topic was heating assistance and the goal was to take questions, comments and suggestions regarding LIHEAP in hopes of helping to better fund the federal heating assistance program and more quickly get assistance to those most in need.
“My message to you is I’m going to continue to fight for the program,” Snowe told the group. “I was there when LIHEAP was created in 1979 with Tip O’Neill, but I didn’t think I’d be in this fight for the next 30 years. I would’ve thought Congress would have caught on by now as to the value of this program.”
Dumond, Catherine Larkin and her husband, Francis Larkin of Bangor, are all feeling the squeeze of LIHEAP cuts.
“We’ve received $200 so far, but that doesn’t buy too much,” said Catherine Larkin. “Our heating costs are around $186 a month, so a $200 payment only covers a tenth of what we have to buy.”
As a proud New Englander, Dumond doesn’t like being on the LIHEAP program.
“Maine people are pretty independent and we’ve always been taught to tighten our belts a notch, but there aren’t any more notches on the belt,” Dumond said.
Snowe was meeting with heating oil business owners, consumers and agency officials in Bangor and Waterville on Thursday as part of a fact-finding tour. Her goal is to restore LIHEAP funding to last year’s $4.7 billion level. It is currently at $3.5 billion.
Snowe recounted the story told to her by a woman from Machias when she met with people at Dysart’s Truck Stop and Restaurant in Hermon earlier Thursday morning.
“She makes $12,000 a year and she’s already run out of her allotment of fuel assistance,” Snowe said. “And that’s a common story for many people here as we have an extraordinary oil dependence — 70 percent — in this state.”
Charlie Newton, the CEO of Penquis, said the average benefit paid to Maine’s 12,000 LIHEAP recipients was $483 last winter. Approximately 14,000 people total applied for assistance last year. This year, 13,000 people applied and 11,000 were given assistance, which averages to about $324, Newton said.
Jennifer Giosia, housing and energy services director at Penquis, told Snowe that the agency went through about $80,000 in LIHEAP funds over a recent three-day period.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud is also joining in the fight. On Thursday, the 2nd District congressman sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to include full funding for LIHEAP in his fiscal year 2013 budget submission to Congress.
Penquis is a private, nonprofit organization that serves low-income residents in Penobscot, Piscataquis and Knox counties.