In Scarborough, town and nonprofit hope to soothe winter heating woes
SCARBOROUGH — While U.S. Bureau of of Labor Statistics' figures from June put Maine's unemployment rate at 7.8 percent — better than the national average of about 9 percent — many Mainers still feel the pinch of living paycheck to paycheck.
In August, this means fewer trips to the beach or dinners at restaurants.
In the cold Maine winter, it can mean the difference between buying heating oil or going cold.
That's why Tom Hall, Scarborough's town manager, floated a plan for the town to partner with a local nonprofit to distribute heating fuel assistance to needy residents, months before the heating season begins. The plan was approved by Scarborough's Town Council in a meeting Wednesday.
"High fuel prices and the sluggish economy are a double-punch to residents," Hall said in an interview. "People are out of work or underemployed. These are people who may never have needed help before."
Though fuel assistance is available from the town through the general assistance program, Hall was worried the strict eligibility requirements may leave some residents out in the cold.
To help those people, Hall turned to Project GRACE, an organization the town often refers residents to when they fall just outside of the general assistance eligibility requirements. Heating fuel assistance is one of the many forms of help doled out by the nonprofit to needy Scarborough Residents.
Other kinds of aid vary widely, from food and rent money to haircuts and nice clothes for job interviews or support for Hospice and Preble Street. Hall described the group's work as "guerrilla acts of kindness."
The group distributed about $35,000 worth of fuel last year, said its executive director, Mary Rollo. Hall worried that increased need would pull resources away from the nonprofit's other resources.
In Project GRACE, Hall saw an opportunity to reach out to residents in need through a system that's already proved itself to work, and to supplement the group's work to the benefit of all its programs. Not only that, but the town and the nonprofit have had a working relationship with one another for years: The town gave Project GRACE about $10,000 last year and the two bodies have "a great relationship," Rollo said.
Predicting an even bigger need for heating oil assistance this winter, Hall has been working with a committee of Project GRACE's board of directors on a proposal he put together for the town and the nonprofit to work together to provide support.
So Hall, working with a small group of Project GRACE's board of directors, hatched a plan.
Under the proposal, the town would conduct a community-wide fundraising campaign using the local access television channel, the e-newsletter and council meetings as a "bully pulpit" to boost the project, Hall said.
If it is successful, the town will disburse funds for Project GRACE in increments of $5,000, earmarked for heating oil, up to the project goal of $50,000. The nonprofit would distribute the funds as it saw fit, following a set of agreed-upon guidelines.
Hall said he was first spurred to look at actions he could take to help people with their heating bills by the high price of his own fuel last winter. Fuel oil prices climbed past $2.90 per gallon, according to the Governor's Office of Energy Independence and Security.
"I had an inkling of this idea as I was looking at my own household," he said. "It's more than $1,000 to fill my tank, and luckily I can do that. But I fear there are a number of Scarborough residents who can't."
It doesn't hurt that he's no stranger to fuel assistance. As Town Manager of Rockland, Hall facilitated a similar program in the 2004-2005 heating season. That year, the price of heating oil rose from about $1.75 to more than $2.05 per gallon, according to the energy office.
Even still, the success of Rockland's program, and the proposed partnership with Project GRACE, make him optimistic about his chances in Scarborough.
Rollo was optimistic too, about the state of charity in Scarborough.
"We can make a difference here because of the way the scales are tipped," she said. "There is so much generosity that we can at least come close to fulfilling the need."
Now that the town has approved the plan on paper, all that's left is for Project GRACE's board of directors to decide officially whether to sign on. Rollo said the board wouldn't make a decision until the town made the proposal official.
If Project GRACE approves the plan, Hall said the city would jump head-first into fundraising efforts.
"Heating season is just around the corner," he said. "It's taken us all summer just to coalesce the idea and get everyone on board."
Hall said he's hopeful residents and fuel companies will support the program.
“It's universal in that everyone can appreciate that times are different,” Hall said. "A warm home is a basic human right, and a necessity. ... It's all about being neighborly. In times of need, neighbors help neighbors."