BANGOR, Maine – Though the first snowflakes for the coming heating season are months away, Mainers already are jittery, if not frantic, about how they are going to pay for home heating fuel.
Compounding their worries are the fact that wages in Maine aren’t keeping pace with fuel costs, which have increased roughly 70 percent from last October, and that much of Maine’s housing stock is aging and poorly weatherized.
As home heating fuel costs continue to hover near the $4.50 a gallon mark — up almost 70 percent from last October — increasing numbers of Maine households are calling their regional community action programs in search of help from such programs as the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, better known as LIHEAP.
As the people on the front lines of the heating fuel crisis, several administrators of aid agencies and programs in Maine had many horror stories to tell during a meeting Wednesday with U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe.
Jen Giosia, who manages the LIHEAP program for Penquis, spoke of an elderly woman whose income is fixed at $800 a month, but whose heating oil budget plan now works out to $500 a month. Giosia said she had no choice but to advise the woman not to drop the plan, because without it, her oil bill could be $1,000 or more a month.
Tim King, executive director of the Washington-Hancock Community Agency, spoke of an elderly couple whose combined income was just above the LIHEAP income cutoff, making them ineligible.
“They’ re the folks who are falling through the cracks,” King said.
“I’ m hearing this a lot,” Snowe said.
Though this is the time Mainers normally would be getting their tanks filled, some are frozen with inaction, waiting for a drop in oil prices that might not come.
“It’ s become a gamble, like the stock market,” said Brian Thibeau, Penquis’ chief operating officer.
Connie Sandstrom, head of the Aroostook County Action Program, noted some senior citizens in northern Maine are looking into reverse mortgages to help pay for heat.
“I don’ t think that communities are ready for what we’ re going to be facing,” she said.
The influx of calls from Mainers seeking LIHEAP benefits, some for the first time, and from those who are nervously awaiting a decision on their applications, is jamming the telephone systems at Penquis, the WHCA, ACAP, Waldo County Action Partners and Kennebec Valley Community Action.
“We don’ t handle the calls well,” said Sandstrom. “We just don’ t have the infrastructure.”
King agreed: “Nobody’ s phone system is able to handle that.”
Also, because the state’ s LIHEAP software program doesn’ t allow it, no applications or inquiries can be handled online.
Applicants currently must drive to their regional community action program offices to fill out documents. In some cases, especially in rural Maine, the driving distances required to apply for heating fuel assistance consume gallons of almost equally costly gasoline.
Though 51,000 households received assistance from Maine’ s $38.8 million LIHEAP allotment during the previous heating season, the recent spike in fuel costs means federal funding for the program won’ t go nearly as far in the coming season.
As it stands, MaineHousing is projecting that LIHEAP, which traditionally has helped low-income residents pay 60 percent of their winter heating bills, will only be able to provide an average of $415 in aid — or the equivalent of eight to 10 days of heat — for the same number of households the program assisted last heating season.
That Maine could use more LIHEAP funding is not lost on Snowe who was among several lawmakers from northern states who fought in Congress to double the sum set aside for the heating assistance program this year.
“Last year’ s spending level is unacceptable, because it won’ t cover half the cost,” Snowe said during Wednesday’ s gathering at the Penquis offices on Harlow Street. The meeting was attended by a dozen representatives from community action programs covering the northern two-thirds of the state.
Snowe expressed anger at her colleagues in Congress for failing to increase funding for LIHEAP before beginning their five-week summer break on Aug. 1. She vowed to continue the battle in September.
“It’ s a basic commodity that can make a difference between life and death,” she said of heating oil. “I think the federal government needs to step up to the plate.”
According to Snowe, the average Maine household uses 850 to 1,000 gallons of oil during a typical heating season. With prices now as high as $4.60 a gallon in some parts of Maine and projections of $4.80 a gallon this winter, Maine families could find themselves paying from $3,000 to $5,000 to keep their homes warm.
“It’ s staggering,” Snowe said.
She likened the coming heating emergency to Maine’ s version of Hurricane Katrina. While the disaster is expected to last here for several months, it is one for which state and local leaders can plan, she said.
Apart from a desire for more LIHEAP money, aid administrators said they want to see a less cumbersome application process, automatic eligibility for residents on fixed incomes such as Social Security, and income limits that can be applied on a sliding scale for more flexibility.
Taking a long view, they said more money must go into weatherizing houses and replacing inadequate furnaces.
The group said planning for this winter is under way at the state and local levels and that counties, through their emergency management agencies, could be part of the solution, as was the case during the Ice Storm of 1998.
In Piscataquis County, officials are talking about setting up “warming centers,” so people could turn down the heat at their own homes and go to a central spot, like a school, to keep warm.
In rural Penobscot County, local leaders will be checking on their neighbors.