ELLSWORTH, Maine — Anyone calling the Washington Hancock Community Agency recently may well have met with a busy signal.
The agency received 1,400 phone calls the first day it began scheduling appointments to apply for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program on Aug. 11. The next day there were more than a thousand calls.
“It’s very busy for this early in the season,” said Ellen Hathaway, resource developer for the agency.
Last year the WHCA received between 800 and 900 calls when they started making application appointments.
LIHEAP is a one-time benefit provided through the Maine State Housing Authority to help households curb the cost of energy prices during the winter.
To apply, residents of Washington and Hancock counties must make an appointment with WHCA. The applicants must bring to the appointment proof of recent financial information, their most recent electric bill, and proof of any medical deductions. The WHCA then determines if the applicant is eligible, and if so, the information is passed along to MSHA, which pays the supplement directly to oil distributors.
According to Hathaway, the agency has booked more than 2,000 appointments through September, and expects to be booking through the end of December soon.
“People are frightened,” said Eleanor West, director of community services for WHCA. “Frightened because of the high cost of oil and also because they think we might not have enough money.”
The basic program as funded by the federal government is expected to provide the average applicant $415 toward heating oil this year, down from $850 last year, according to West.
“The problem is a lack of funding,” she said. “The fuel assistance program was never designed to pay for a whole fuel bill all season, just to help out if an electric bill comes in high or something of that nature. But people are needing more and more help.”
All Maine households with incomes 170 percent above the federal poverty level now qualify for LIHEAP.
Congress next month is likely to approve about $37 million for LIHEAP in Maine which, after related costs are deducted, translates into a benefit of about $415 based on 50,000 households getting help, according to an earlier Bangor Daily News report.
Maine will increase that benefit to $500 using state funds under an emergency plan Gov. John Baldacci announced this month that allocates another $4.25 million.
That $500, according to West, will purchase a little more than 100 gallons of fuel at today’s prices.
“It’s good enough for maybe two weeks,” said West.
Last year the average household spent $3,000 on fuel oil, according to WHCA.
“The question isn’t whether the funds will run out, it’s just how much each person will get,” said Dan Simpson, manager of public information for MSHA. “Five hundred dollars is better than $415, but people are going to need more than that.
“We are hoping the federal government comes through with funds, especially if oil prices increase any more,” said Simpson.
Meanwhile the WHCA continues to schedule appointments for LIHEAP.
Last year between August and April the agency approved 4,800 of the 5,400 people who applied for LIHEAP funds. This year the agency’s goal is to have 5,000 applications for review by the end of December, West said.
“We are working very diligently to get those in need in and get them the benefit as fast as possible,” she said. “We are all hoping for a winter that is a little warmer than last year.”