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Towns face sharp increase in fuel assistance requests /some wait months for LIHEAP appointments
AREA — Low-income households started receiving winter energy assistance earlier this month, but some towns are reporting a sharp increase in general assistance applications for heating fuel.
West Paris Town Manager John White says the number of GA applicants usually rises during the winter, but there has been a surprising increase in the past six weeks.
He says some applicants have applied for LIHEAP but have not been scheduled for appointments with Community Concepts until February – some have simply run out of money to pay for heat.
West Paris budgeted $15,500 for GA this year, White says – as of November 21, it had spent $15,356 and has since gone over budget. GA is one line item that municipalities are required to spend over budget and receive 50 percent reimbursement from the state.
White attributes the increase to the high number of applicants for fuel assistance. He says most people who rent in town pay for their own heat, which might explain a high applicant volume.
The Oxford Town Office has also recorded a steep rise in recent GA applicants, mainly for heating fuel, according to Town Clerk Ellen Morrison.
Some people who are applying for help report they have not been scheduled for an appointment until February, Morrison reports.
"Some of them, they really rely on that [LIHEAP] as their main source of fuel, so it really puts them in a bind."
In previous years, Community Concepts scheduled appointments for residents at the Oxford Town Office, Morrison says, but this year the agency hasn't scheduled any meeting times.
According to Morrison, when town office employees contacted Community Concepts, they were told the agency was doing applications over the phone.
"I just think it slowed up the process," Morrison says.
Shannon Moxcey, who administers GA for Norway and Paris, says there has been an increase in applicants, but it hasn't been tremendous.
Many of the people she works with have heat included in their rent, so she may see fewer applicants for direct fuel assistance than areas without as many rental units.
"I've had more push-back from the landlords wanting to get their rent reimbursement from the towns so they can pay for their oil," Moxcey says.
Applicants she's spoken to who have already applied for LIHEAP also report delays in receiving appointments.
"There's a big lapse from the time they apply until they can actually go in and qualify and get the assistance," Moxcey says.
Buckfield Town Manager Dana Lee confirmed the town had seen a huge increase in GA applicants as well. According to Lee, some applicants said they were not receiving appointments with Community Concepts until March or April.
Laurie Winsor, chief operating officer for Community Concepts, Incorporated, acknowledges the process takes time, from when federal funding is released to MaineHousing through the certification process and finally the distribution of funds to fuel vendors on behalf of clients.
Community Concepts hasn't changed the application process, Winsor says, although this year it centralized its application sites in Norway and Paris.
"We wanted to create ... a couple of central spots," says Winsor. "We're always happy to talk with a town who'd like us to be available at the town office."
Community Concepts has just started processing emergency fuel requests, which are responded to within 24 hours, Winsor says. People who are not requesting immediate assistance are being scheduled for the next available time.
The agency has been taking LIHEAP applications since August, but benefits were not available until earlier this month, Winsor says.
According to the Maine State Housing Authority, which administers aid through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, $10.7 million was distributed amongst 19,038 people in Maine as of December 4.
LIHEAP benefits, used to supplement fuel budgets for low-income households, are usually distributed through community action agencies to fuel vendors on behalf of certified clients.
By this time last year, MSHA distributed $7.8 million to 24,990 households across the state.
Winsor says the organization has already distributed aid to 2,421 clients in Oxford and Androscoggin counties and 2,645 households have been certified eligible for the program.
Certified housesholds receive differential amounts of aid based on size, income, energy costs and other factors.
Total household income must fall within the income eligibility guidelines or below 60 percent of the state area median income.
Last year Community Concepts certified 9,500 households. Winsor expects a similar number of clients again this winter.
Statewide, around 55,000 will qualify for assistance between $144 and $1,656, with an average benefit of $556. The average is slightly higher in Community Concepts' area, $591, according to Winsor.
Although the impending 'fiscal cliff' has lawmakers and citizens worried about budget cuts across state and national levels, Winsor and MSHA representatives are confident Mainers who rely on heating assistance won't be left in the cold this winter.
Despite early fears that financial support for fuel assistance would be cut, the eventual outcome will not affect heating support to more than 50,000 households in Maine, says Deborah Turcotte, MSHA spokeswoman.
“Heating will continue,” says Turcotte. “Washington decisions will not affect our ability to put heat into Maine homes.”
Ninety percent of LIHEAP’s budget has already been allocated for the 2013 fiscal year, according to Turcotte. What remains in question is the remaining 10 percent of the budget, or roughly four million dollars, according to the LIHEAP Clearinghouse website.
Turcotte says those cuts – if they happen – will come from the state’s weatherization program, which improves energy efficiency in low-income homes.