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More in News
Company takes money, leaves family in cold
OXFORD — It was bad enough for Tove Westleigh, a working single mother of four, when the federal government cut LIHEAP, a program that she relies on to help heat her home.
But what really hurt her was when she learned that her LIHEAP funds had been paid to a local oil company that then failed to give her the oil she needed.
"They don't have the money," said Westleigh. "They spent it."
In April 2011, said Westleigh, she qualified for about $800 in LIHEAP funding that was paid directly to J&W Oil, a West Paris company that provides heating oil to many in the region.
With the warmer months approaching, Westleigh planned to use the oil to get her through the first part of this winter season.
But when she tried to get the company to deliver her oil, she said, she couldn't get anyone to return her calls.
"I called them in June to ask them to deliver. They didn't. I called them in July. I called them in August. Finally, my mother went in, and that's when I found out that they were partially closed. People who were on payment plans and on fuel assistance weren't getting deliveries."
Westleigh's family lives in one of about 1,000 households in Norway, Paris and Oxford that receive LIHEAP funding for heating assistance.
Apparently, not all of them were getting their oil, either.
In November, the Attorney General's Office took action against J&W after determining that 12 consumers were owed a total of nearly $6,000 that they had paid for oil that was not delivered.
In an assurance of discontinuance signed by a representative of J&W, the company agrees not to accept advance payments from customers for the next three years, and will pay back $5,927.05 to its customers by March 31.
It also may not advertise that it sells prepaid heating fuel or budget payment plans.
Under the agreement, "J&W Oil neither admits nor denies that their actions as described constitute unfair and/or deceptive trade practices ... but acknowledges that it has had financial problems related to its heating fuel business. J&W Oil denies any intentional wrongdoing."
Despite months of effort to get her oil from J&W, and paying for what oil she could afford with a different company, CN Brown, Westleigh was unable to avert the day when the oil ran out.
"I woke up and it was freezing," she said. "It was like 46 degrees."
That morning, Westleigh said, her 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter complained about the lack of heat, but she was more concerned about her two younger boys, who weren't complaining.
Her youngest, aged 1, is too young to talk about the cold. Her 5-year-old has Down syndrome, which she said comes with a whole raft of associated health concerns.
"When a child has Down syndrome, everything in their body is not developed quite right," she said. "He has a minor heart condition. In the winter, he winds up with asthma-like symptoms. Last year, he was sick from October straight through until May. His breathing, he ends up with pneumonia. He's got a cold right now."
Westleigh is dosing her son with medicine in the hopes of averting pneumonia this year.
"I'm doing preventive medications to try to keep it from turning into anything bad," she said.
Westleigh said that she is now depending on J&W to pay the money to CN Brown. She has fallen behind on payments to that company as well.
"I still owe CN Brown $269," she said "I pretty much cried and made a payment plan, that if J&W didn't fork over the money, I would have to pay on a weekly basis until I was paid off. They gave me 30 to 45 days."
She has also paid for heating oil with a combination of a $100 loan from her mother and a second, smaller round of LIHEAP funding.
Because of the cuts to LIHEAP, she only got about $380 in assistance this winter, roughly half what she got last year. She said that she thinks it will be enough to sustain her until her income tax refund check comes.
A friend noticed Westleigh's situation and brought it to the attention of state legislators.
Legislative Aide Dawn Croteau said that officials from Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA) conducted an audit of J&W to track accounts that have received LIHEAP funding.
MSHA "is working with the owner of J&W Oil to recover the funds," she reported.
According to the Better Business Bureau of Boston, J&W has received far more complaints than any other company of its type.
The "B-" grade that J&W has received from BBB is based on the fact that 12 complaints have been filed against the company within the last three years.
Most of the complaints were related to oil delivery.
Of 591 other businesses in the same industry, the majority of businesses, 472, have received no complaints at all. In fact, J&W is the only oil company that has gotten more than four complaints over the same time period.
However, the BBB did find that J&W had successfully addressed most of the complaints, after BBB intervened.
For the weeks during which her heat was off, Westleigh used three electric heaters to warm her home as well as she could, and occasionally used her oven as well.
"It's a two-bedroom trailer with a 13 x 10 addition," she said. "My son's room, shut the door and it heats up really well. The main part of the house, there were times it was 49 degrees with the heaters on. One of the heaters has a temperature gauge. The highest it ever got was 56, 58."
Despite the chill, Westleigh was paying more than ever to heat her home. And since it was through the electric company, she will have to pay it out of pocket, she said.
In December, when Westleigh used the heaters for one week out of the month, her electricity bill jumped to $230, more than double what it usually is. She shudders to think of what her next bill will be, as it will reflect nearly three weeks of electric heaters.
The whole time, said Westleigh, having her LIHEAP funding would have solved all of these problems.
"They had been paid in April, took the money, and didn't deliver," she said.
For Westleigh, her struggles seem likely to continue for as long as the weather is cold. CN Brown delivered oil to her on Tuesday, January 24, but two days later, the furnace stopped working.
"I just bought tools to go fix that," she said. "I'm going to try seeing if it's the filter. If it's something inside, I'm going to have to break down and get a furnace person to come in."
The entire ordeal, said Westleigh, has made caring for her family that much more difficult. She works part-time as a housekeeper, but she said that her son's condition makes it difficult to work as many hours as she needs to.
"I feel exasperated, mostly, and I'm trying to keep my 5-year-old from getting sick before he winds up in the hospital," she said.
Attempts to contact J&W Oil Company by phone for this story were unsuccessful.