Lincoln’s heating aid program swamped with requests

Several snaps of bitterly cold weather and layoff at Lincoln Paper and Tissue LLC have town leaders concerned that some residents won't be able to pay home-heating prices like those seen on West Broadway on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014.
Several snaps of bitterly cold weather and layoff at Lincoln Paper and Tissue LLC have town leaders concerned that some residents won't be able to pay home-heating prices like those seen on West Broadway on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. Buy Photo
Posted Jan. 16, 2014, at 6:02 a.m.
Lincoln Town Councilor Curt Ring
Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
Lincoln Town Councilor Curt Ring Buy Photo

LINCOLN, Maine — The bitter weather has more than doubled the number of families turning to the town’s home-heating aid program for help, but civic leaders want to see the voluntary donation fund exhausted before they put money in it.

As of Wednesday, the town’s program had issued $12,647 in aid to 52 Lincoln families, totaling 141 people — including two families of laid-off Lincoln Paper and Tissue LLC workers — since October. Last winter the program supported 23 families, totaling 66 people, said town Treasurer Melissa Quintela.

About three families a week on average have sought aid since October, said Quintela, who estimated that at that rate, the program would exhaust its $4,136 in remaining funds within a few weeks. More requests might come from the families of 200 people laid off by Lincoln Paper last month, she said.

“A lot of them have gotten their severance packages and they are putting it toward their heating costs,” Quintela said Wednesday. “I think a lot of them are just doing it [paying for heat] with what they have.”

Mill co-owner Keith Van Scotter declined to comment Wednesday on whether the layoff process had finished and how many people might have been spared layoffs by workers taking the mill’s early retirement or buyout program.

Van Scotter announced last month that the explosion of a recovery boiler at the mill on Nov. 2 forced the indefinite but not permanent layoffs. He and other company officials have said they will not seek to replace the boiler, a key element to the papermaking components of their mill, until market conditions improve. Such boilers can cost as much as $100 million to replace. The mill’s three tissue machines continue to run around the clock.

Created in 2008, the town’s heating-aid program targets town households that fail to meet General Assistance, Salvation Army or Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program standards — typically senior citizens or single parents. It serves those who have less than a quarter-tank of home heating oil or other energy source and need 50 to 100 gallons. The council has occasionally allocated money to the fund since its creation.

Only two families who have applied have failed to meet the guidelines this winter, Quintela said.

The layoff of paper mill workers, stretches of bitter cold weather and the heavier-than-average program usage this season prompted Councilor Curt Ring to discuss allocating town funds to the program during Monday’s council meeting.

“This is the worst winter I have seen” since joining the council in 2010, Ring said.

Councilors were receptive to helping more residents, especially the laid-off workers, but said they didn’t like the idea of mingling town money with donated funds. The council can donate money to the account but cannot legally withdraw it if it isn’t used.

Another element prompting their hesitance is the $4,217 donated to the program since October. About 60 percent of those donations came within the last month, after the layoffs were announced and during recent spells of cold weather, Quintela said.

With the fiscal year half over, the town is about $249,000 over budget in its general fund. Town Manager William Lawrence said the majority of the overage comes from seasonal costs — Public Works Department overtime and salt and sand costs — and the overtime associated with an unfilled Police Department patrol position.

That amount is typical for Lincoln at the halfway point, Lawrence said. Town department heads can redress much of the imbalance over the next half of the year, when the amount of revenues drawn from building permit applications and other revenue-generators typically increases.

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