FARMINGTON – Western Maine Community Action continued their effort to improve communication between municipalities and their organization at last night’s selectman meeting, as they look for new ideas and share information before the start of the cold season. With high energy prices driving up the price of heating oil, WMCA and others are worried that this winter could be a bad one for many Maine families.
“This year, we’re going to be looking at some people in trouble,” said Paul Brown, who serves on the WMCA board of directors.
WMCA serves roughly 2,500 customers in Franklin County, with program eligibility being determined by income. According to Judy Frost, who administers WMCA’s housing energy resources, that aid translates into more than $1.5 million of fuel assistance. Last winter, $317,000 was used to heat 448 homes in Farmington alone. Unfortunately, cuts in the WMCA’s federal and state money has caused shortages in places where additional funding will likely be needed this winter.
Little action is occurring in Augusta or Washington. According to state Sen. Walter Gooley (R – Farmington), there is some discussion in holding a special session to review possible solutions, but he was not certain any meaningful initiative would arise out of such a session. The Maine congressional representatives are also looking into possible options.
“Locally, things have got to come together,” Gooley said, noting that even doubling the amount of federal funding for the Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program would be insufficient to meet projected needs. He said that collaboration between WMCA, municipalities, churches and other organizations is going to be crucial.
LIHEAP was able to provide $415 per needy person in Maine last year. This year, that amount of money is expected to purchase less than 100 gallons of heating oil, if the same number of people apply. However, WMCA believes far more will. WMCA also administers the Operation Keep ME Warm, a private and public collaboration, as well as the distribution for smaller charity organizations, such as local churches.
Selectmen had some thoughts of their own. Selectman and Sheriff Dennis Pike said that his agency received several 911 calls last year from people without the means to heat their homes. He wondered if there was a better way to relay that information to WCMA for further assistance. He also suggested that if WMCA had knowledge of people in need of assistance, they could tell the Sheriff’s Department, which typically checks in on at-risk people in the smaller towns.
Selectman Jon Bubier noted that there was a disconnect between the heating assistance programs, which give money to residents, and landlords trying to cope with the rising cost of fuel. He said that he had lost money on one of his buildings last winter, and was considering switching some of his apartments to not including the cost of heat with the rent.
According to the LIHEAP data available through WMCA, 18 percent of the households receiving assistance live in apartments.
Selectman Nancy Porter was concerned that some people, particularly the older generation, would not seek assistance.
“My concern is for the older people who have to much pride to ask,” she said.
Town Manager Richard Davis noted that the town can offer a General Assistance account, and would not turn anyone in dire need of assistance away. The town is actually allowed to overdraw that account if need be, half of which is reimbursed by the state.