BANGOR, Maine — A few weeks later than normal, federal funds to help low-income Mainers stay warm this winter are now in the state pipeline, although the delivery of oil may come later than in the past for some who have anxiously watched as temperatures drop and their fuel tanks run dry.
Late last week, MaineHousing released the first round of Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, payments, which will help 19,000 Mainers put oil in their tanks.
In recent weeks, MaineHousing and Penquis, a community action program that processes applications for LIHEAP assistance, have been swamped with calls from people who qualified for the program and have been wondering where their oil is, according to spokeswomen for the agencies.
“It is getting colder at night, and people are waiting for their benefits,” said Deborah Turcotte, spokeswoman for MaineHousing. She said MaineHousing didn’t receive its funding for LIHEAP until mid-November, which is a few weeks later than it arrived last year. The agency received $34.9 million but expected $38.5 million. The federal government is withholding the final 10 percent in case of sequestration of the budget at the end of the year.
Sequestration is the automatic, across-the-board cuts that will go into effect Jan. 2, 2013, if Congress fails to reach an agreement on budget cuts required under the federal Budget Control Act of 2011, which allowed the country to raise the debt limit.
So far, MaineHousing has sent out $10.7 million to heating oil companies that will now begin working to deliver oil to the 19,000 already-approved LIHEAP recipients. The average benefit for recipients this year is $556, according to Turcotte.
Once MaineHousing releases the money, there’s little either it or the community action programs can do to rush oil to recipients. People who are concerned about when they might receive their oil may contact their oil delivery company, according to Jennifer Giosia, director of energy and housing services for Penquis, which serves Penobscot, Piscataquis and Knox counties.
“The money has started flowing in,” Giosia said, adding that oil companies are beginning to deliver fuel to their customers, including LIHEAP recipients. She said she thinks concern about the economy and federal budget issues is causing more people to worry that they might not be able to heat their homes.
Penquis has covered a portion of heating costs for nearly 4,000 low-income residents in the past week, but it has received more than 8,000 applications. The community action program has just 10 employees scattered across the counties to interview each of these applicants. Penquis expects to serve 11,000 homes throughout the winter.
MaineHousing expects that by the end of the winter, 64,000 households will have been screened to determine if they are LIHEAP-eligible. It expects about 55,000 to qualify. Nine community action programs in the state process applications for LIHEAP funding, and the large majority of those applicants need to be interviewed in person.
The community action programs in the state have limited resources, Turcotte said, and processing requests takes time.
Those who need emergency fuel assistance may contact their oil company to see if it can deliver ahead of schedule, but some companies charge an extra fee to do so. People who can’t afford to fill their oil tanks also may go to their town office to see if they can receive general assistance, their local community action program to see if they qualify for emergency funding, or to local churches, according to Turcotte and Giosia.
Community action programs in Maine will continue fielding applications for heating assistance through April, according to Turcotte.
“We hear daily from people who are struggling to keep warm, and we empathize with them,” Turcotte said, adding that the agencies were working as quickly as possible to meet people’s needs now that MaineHousing has funding.