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More in News
Heat is on fuel assistance program
NORWAY — Norway resident Ben Hull has a message for lawmakers who are threatening the state's fuel assistance program.
"Rather than hit it over the head with a hammer, they could do it surgically," he said.
Hull is referring to threats to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a program which helps tens of thousands of Maine households to pay for home heating costs.
Maine's newly-Republican legislature has been exploring cutting heating-assistance programs as a way to narrow the budget gap, while President Obama has submitted a budget that would cut federal funding for the program in half.
"Maine is the most heavily dependent state in the union on heating oil,"said Hull.
Hull feels that the best way to save LIHEAP is to close loopholes that currently allow well-off citizens to take advantage of the program, which is not in keeping with its spirit.
Currently, the program allows residents to qualify based on their previous three months of income, a time period that doesn't necessarily hold water in Western Maine's seasonal economy.
"This allows the proprietors of ski resorts, summer camps and campgrounds, as well as charter boat operators and others to wait three months, then apply as if they were indigent," said Hull.
Hull advocates a 12-month income verification, a move that he says would prevent abuse.
Dan Simpson is an administrator with Maine's Housing program, which oversees LIHEAP.
He says that the three-month period "is to help people who have experienced a sudden loss of income, such as losing a job. This is a one-time assistance program, not an on-going entitlement."
Simpson notes that, in most cases, fuel vendors receive the money directly from the state, and that the vendors are asked to report fraud or abuse.
"If a fuel vendor – or anyone – suspects fraud they should report it to us and we will investigate the claim," he said.
Hull's other beef with the program is the fact that the qualification process does not take an applicant's wealth into account. A person living in a million-dollar mansion could technically qualify for the program, as long as that person has no documented income.
"You have an asset limit on food stamps of $3,000," said Hull. "If you have more than $3K in the bank, you can't qualify."
Simpson says that a comparison of the two programs is like comparing apples and oranges.
"LIHEAP is not comparable to entitlement programs such as food stamps," said Simpson. "Entitlement programs provide benefits every month, while LIHEAP is a one-time assistance program with an average benefit for an entire year of just over $800 ... recipients have to reapply every year."
Simpson says that program administrators have considered including assets into the equation, but that the idea has been rejected.
"We have spent a lot of time internally on this question, and our conclusion is always that the burden of evaluating assets for 64,000 households far outweighs the value," he said. "Verifying assets is administratively burdensome. It is our understanding that other states that had an asset test have discontinued it because it costs more than it saves."
Simpson also says that people who draw from savings, or who receive assistance from family, have those resource streams counted as income.
At any rate, says Simpson, if the program is being abused by the well-to-do, it is happening on a small scale.
"I can tell you that 53 percent of those who get it are elderly or disabled," said Simpson.
The average income of a LIHEAP recipient is $16,679, or about eight dollars an hour for someone working a full time, year-round job.
"If it is being abused, it's not happening at a rate that changes the average income level," said Simpson. "I think the average income speaks to the fact that it's not being abused much."
Hull, who is a recipient of LIHEAP himself, says that he matches the profile Simpson describes. Hull is 70 years old, and makes about $15,000 per year.
"I squeak by one way or another," said Hull. "My fuel assistance just got approved for $900. It helps."
Hull says that he's not accusing anyone of abusing the program, but that the loopholes in the system could weaken the program in the long-term.
"It could be that nobody has ever abused the program, but the loophole is still there," said Hull. "It's sort of like you've got a hole in the hull of a boat; you don't want to wait until the bailing won't work."