AUGUSTA, Maine — Private donations, along with additional federal dollars and expanded conservation efforts, are part of a multifaceted effort to ensure no one goes without heat this winter despite soaring energy costs, the state’s top energy official said.
John Kerry, director of the governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security, is even cautiously optimistic about the price of heating oil.
No. 2 oil, while hovering in the $3.70 range, is about $1 a gallon cheaper than it was in early July. Crude oil prices have tumbled this week, as well.
Nonetheless, the state is pressing forward with its efforts, including distribution of cards that proclaim “Help Starts Here” and a 211 phone number. The cards publicize a one-stop-shopping resource for those who find themselves in need when the weather gets cold.
“There are people in crisis and have been for some time,” Kerry told The Associated Press. “It is manageable. The programs that we have in place have been able to address most of the needs of people. We have not moved to crisis modality but we’re prepared.”
One big help was Congress’ vote last week to nearly double federal funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to $5.1 billion as part of a larger spending bill.
It could ratchet Maine’s share up to about $50 million, several million more than the state received in LIHEAP funds for last heating season, said Kerry.
“Even with the added funding, we can only serve 15-20 days of fuel assistance,” said Kerry, a former state senator who also ran Catholic Charities in the state. “Yet it is a very helpful amount.”
Kerry, who is chairman of the governor’s Pre-Emergency Energy Task Force, is leading a mobilization that’s highly dependent on participation by local service clubs, neighborhood activism and voluntary efforts to help homeowners find out where insulation is needed and then insulate their homes.
He’s shooting for distribution of 2,000 to 3,000 “warm kits,” which include energy-conserving items such as caulk, low-flow shower heads, plastic to cover windows, outlet insulators and high-efficiency light bulbs. The kits will be given to income-eligible people, many of them LIHEAP recipients, and distributed principally through Community Action Program agencies.
Volunteers to install the kits have been coming forward, Kerry said. Classes to train energy auditors have been filling up, and trained auditors have backlogs of homeowners.
Using the state-county-local organization of emergency management agencies as a model, the task force is identifying which homes need to be insulated and who is likely to need heating help this winter, said Kerry.
Once that information is entered into the 211 phone system’s database, families in need can be connected more quickly with the agency best suited to help, said Kerry.
That could include one of many agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, Maine State Housing Authority, which administers LIHEAP, or the Department of Conservation, which runs a program allowing Mainers to cut their own firewood on public land.
Also in the works is a plan to designate public “warming shelters” in Maine communities, which give people a place to go while they turn their thermostats down for a few hours to save fuel.
More and more private donors, meanwhile, have been contributing to heating-assistance funds. On Tuesday, First Wind, which has two wind-power projects in the state, announced it’s giving $30,000 to four county-based agencies to help Mainers deal with escalating fuel costs. A community group in Waterville plans a variety show Oct. 19 to raise money for the United Way of Mid-Maine’s Keeping Mid-Maine Warm Fund.
Kerry said the task force is concerned about those who are above the income limits for heating assistance, but are still in danger of having their fuel tanks run dry. He hopes to address the needs of those homeowners with money donated privately to the Keep ME Warm fund. A $3 million goal has been set, he said.
But everyone should be preparing now for the winter ahead, he said.
“I think the central message is that people should do good budgeting. They should start right now taking this situation very seriously and create a budget for the winter. And conserve, start conserving right now,” Kerry said.
Those who can’t make it for some reason can call the 211 referral system that will match their needs to the available resources, he said.
“The biggest thing is that people should be cognizant of the fact that someone out there, either through public or private enterprise, will keep them warm this winter,” said Kerry.
“I honestly believe we’re going to be able to meet the needs of all the people,” he said.