MACHIAS, Maine — Poverty, high oil prices, limited fuel assistance and a cold winter could converge to create a long winter of discontent for low-income residents of Washington County.
Maine’s easternmost county has a poverty rate of 19.4 percent — nearly one person in five living below the federal poverty level. That’s the highest rate in the state and nearly twice the rate of the three counties surrounding Portland — Cumberland, Sagadahoc and York. Like Washington County, 11 of Maine’s 16 counties have poverty rates that exceed the state average of 14.8 percent.
An estimated 80 percent of Maine’s homes are heated during winter with No. 2 fuel oil. Prices peaked in Maine last November at $3.92 per gallon. The U.S. Energy Information Administration has predicted that the average price nationally during the upcoming heating months will be $3.77 a gallon. That’s already lower than the current $3.79 a gallon in the Washington County community of Eastport, even weeks before cold weather sets in.
According to the Governor’s Energy Office in Augusta, the average heating oil price statewide was $3.56 a gallon at the end of last week, with the highest prices found in Washington County and parts of northern Maine. That office also notes that heating oil prices in Maine are tracking with crude oil prices. Crude oil that was selling for $79 a barrel in June was selling Monday for $99.33, with growing political unrest in the Mideast and Africa fanning concerns that the price of crude will continue to climb.
While those who qualify can receive some government assistance in keeping their homes habitable during winter, revenue for such programs has been capped at last year’s funding levels. Funding for the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is expected to remain at $3.47 billion. National participation in programs funded by LIHEAP has increased by 54 percent since 2008. Some 8.9 million households relied on the program during the 2011-12 heating season, including more than 6,000 households in Maine’s Washington and Hancock counties. The average benefit of $536 is not expected to increase during the upcoming 2012-13 heating season.
Therein lies the rub, says Susan Farley, an Ellsworth-based family assistance advocate with the Washington Hancock Community Agency. At current prices, $536 will buy 140 gallons of fuel oil, enough to last two weeks “if you’re lucky,” she says.
“The only thing that saved us last year is that it was a fairly mild winter, otherwise it would have been the perfect storm,” Farley said Monday. “We were working with $5 million less than we were the year before. It’s insane how many people we now have coming to our door, and these are people who are elderly, disabled or unemployed, not people looking to take advantage of the system.
“These elderly people are people who hate to ask for help, but they’ve hit rock bottom. In some cases they are people who used to donate money to our fuel assistance program, and now they need assistance themselves so that they are not choosing between medications, putting food on the table or getting fuel.”
Given the $4-plus prices of diesel and gasoline, many of the companies that sell fuel oil will not deliver fewer than 100 gallons. That’s a problem for people who don’t qualify for enough subsidy to buy the minimum order. Farley said they either have to come up with the difference between their subsidy and the amount owed or rely on some other solution. Sometimes, she says, their Plan B involves supplying heat with electric space heaters, as the county’s electrical utility provider — Bangor Hydro Electric Company — is precluded by law from cutting service during winter months to households delinquent on their electric bills.
“They know they can’t lose their electricity, at least not until April 15,” Farley said. “I’m seeing families with electric bills of $3,000-$6,000 by the end of the winter. They have good intentions of paying that off, but, even if they work out a payment plan, they’re looking at monthly payments of $250.”
Farley said funding for the agency’s home weatherization program has endured drastic cuts.
“Three years ago we did 554 homes,” she said. “Last year we did 220. This year we can do 35, and this is in an area like Washington County, where the housing stock is old. We’re not talking about caulking around the windows; we’re talking about insulation. This is not ‘winterization,’ it’s ‘weatherization,’ and, where we once had six crews working full-time, we now have one.”
Farley admits her high-energy enthusiasm for helping those who can’t make ends meet belies the potentially harsh challenges her clients are confronting.
“We ran out of money four times last year, in a mild winter,” she said. “I’m afraid that it could be a very long winter.”