WILTON – For a lot of Maine families, it’s going to be a tough winter.
The recent economic downturn, along with record-high fuel prices has created a potential nightmare scenario for northern New England residents this winter. The price of home heating oil, which is used by the majority of Franklin County residents, is currently selling for $3.71, up from $2.50 last year. That price is expected to increase to beyond $4.50 over the winter.
Federal and state funding for programs designed to assist people in need is in decline. Churches, community groups and charities are stepping forward to pool what resources they can. One of the most active organizations in Franklin County, Western Maine Community Action, is taking point on the issue.
“As you know, we’re going to feel the crunch this winter,” state Rep. Tom Saviello (U – Wilton), who sits on WMCA’s board, told the Wilton selectmen. “There isn’t any question.”
WMCA representatives are meeting with towns across the county, trying to come up with ways to coordinate assistance for people who need it most. WMCA Executive Director Fenwick Fowler noted that as the demand for assistance grows and the amount of public funding shrinks, residents are increasingly likely to look to their communities for assistance.
The Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program, better known as LIHEAP, which is run through WMCA, provides some relief. Fowler said that cuts in that program’s funding are nearly as serious as the rise in energy prices. If every person that requested assistance last year did so this year, Fowler said, then LIHEAP could only provide $415 for heating oil. The other estimated $3,500 or more to get through the winter would need to be generated by the individual.
“And of course we know the same number of people won’t come to us this year,” Fowler said. “A lot more will.”
What’s worse, Fowler said, middle income families were also beginning to feel the pinch. The number of homes which have applied for WCMA’s “energy audit” program, where specialists inspect homes and suggest economical ways to improve heating efficiency, have risen dramatically.
Saviello, for his part, expressed his disappointment with Augusta’s response.
“It’s been frustrating,” he admitted. “There are things we could be doing, things that could make a difference.”
Examples include altering a current law that restricts how much construction waste can be burned. Saviello, echoing remarks made by Selectman Russell Black, said that he thought ideas being implemented in places like Vermont could work in Maine as well.
Black, who sells wood, said that business had been brisk. He noted that wood was far cheaper than oil in terms of heat efficiency, but also that wood stoves could be dangerous if used carelessly. He suggested education on wood stove safety as a good starting point. The governor, in his last State of the State address, has called for a refocusing on wood for heat and energy.
In the short term however, WMCA will be talking with towns and trying to create new lines of communication. They also have taken up the distribution duties for some local organizations, such as churches, to allow for a comprehensive delivery of services without different agencies giving the same people money for the same things. Wilton selectmen declined to transfer the estimated $1,800 set aside for heating assistance toward WCMA, but may consider the issue again at a later date.
People who think they may need assistance should go to http://www.wmca.org for more information on the agency’s’ many programs.