Harpswell heating fund sets record for donations

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HARPSWELL — This is already the local Heating Assistance Program’s biggest year for donations since it started in 2008.

“It’s helped a number of people who aren’t eligible for (the town’s) General Assistance Program,” said Deputy Town Administrator Terri Sawyer, who helps manage the program.

Sawyer said the town received nearly $7,800 in donations from 10 donors through early December, ranging from anonymous individuals to churches, and from events like the annual Harpswell Festival.

A donation of nearly $5,800 from Cook’s Lobster House expected at Thursday night’s Board of Selectmen meeting, along with three other donations, will bring this year’s donation total to more than $14,500 – equal to almost 75 percent of the $20,000 the town budgeted for the Heating Assistance Program earlier this year.

Harpswell’s budget allocation for the program increased by 300 percent from last fiscal year in response to major cuts to the federal Low Income Heating Assistance Program.

The donation from Cook’s includes money collected at the fourth annual Holiday Benefit Dinner and Silent Auction held on Dec. 14. Jennifer Stone, the restaurant’s accountant, said this year’s event was the biggest one yet, with 168 people in attendance.

“I have worked at Cook’s off and on for six years and I’ve never seen that many people here before,” Stone said Monday. She said she attributed the success, in part, to restaurant manager Mary Coombs and waitress Melinda Richter, who helped organize the event together for the first time.

Stone said the restaurant also raised $360 and collected a large amount of toys for the local “Santa Fund,” which provides for families in need during the holiday season.

Coombs said the outpouring of support will help those who have been hit hard by tough economic times, like members of the town’s fishing community. She said factors like this year’s lobster glut created a greater need to support the town’s Heating Assistance Program.

General Assistance Administrator Linda Strickland said 40 households have taken advantage of the program this year; 60 households were supported in 2011, while 32 received help in 2010.

The program was established at the 2008 Town Meeting and provides heating assistance to local families with the fuel of their choice. Any funds that aren’t used by the end of 2012 will transfer to next year’s Heating Assistance Program allocation.

Sawyer said the Cook’s Lobster House’s event is a good example of the town’s giving nature.

“We’re that old-fashioned kind of community,” Sawyer said, “and it leaves you with a good feeling to know you can help keep your neighbors warm.”

Dylan Martin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or dmartin@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DylanLJMartin.