Maine municipal heating funds pick up where LIHEAP leaves off

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FREEPORT — Johanna Hanselman knows first-hand how cuts to the federal Low Income Heating Assistance Program are hurting Mainers.

As the general assistance administrator for Freeport and Yarmouth, Hanselmen has heard from people who barely received enough money from LIHEAP to cover the bottoms of their oil tanks.

“I’ve never heard of so many people saying, ‘Oh I got like $105,'” she said, “It’s so little that some people aren’t even getting 50 gallons.”

Fortunately, Freeport is one of the municipalities in greater Portland with the means to help. From Scarborough to Harpswell, many local governments have created or increased funding to heating assistance programs in light of this year’s LIHEAP cuts. Some have aggressively raised money, while others have set aside tax revenue to help heat residents’ homes.

In the fall, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Maine would receive only $21 million for LIHEAP – less than half of the previous year’s allocation. Since the new year, DHHS has released another $17.5 million, and U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has sponsored a bill that would bump funding up to last year’s $56 million.

But the benefits given to Maine residents through the program have been slashed. The average allocation, $483, is about half what it was last year, according to MaineHousing. In addition, the state Department of Health and Human Services changed the eligibility requirements to make the program more exclusive.

That means more people are turning to their town offices for assistance. Linda Strickland, Harpswell’s general assistance administrator, said many residents are looking to supplement their LIHEAP benefit because it wasn’t enough to buy even 100 gallons, the minimum many oil companies will deliver.

Like many heating assistance funds in greater Portland, Harpswell’s fund is designed to help residents who make too much money to qualify for general assistance, but  who are still struggling to make ends meet.

Towns use different standards to determine who qualifies for heating assistance. In North Yarmouth and Cape Elizabeth, that standard is 150 percent of the federal poverty line. Topsham and Harpswell are more lenient, allowing residents who make up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line to qualify.

That amount was chosen “to help people who fall through the cracks but are still in need,” according to Linda Dumont, Topsham’s general assistance administrator.

Freeport targets a similar group, but doesn’t set an income maximum. Instead, Hanselman said she looks for cases where a person’s basic needs exceed their income.

Once they qualify, most residents can only receive one oil delivery per heating season.

“It’s not anything that’s meant to be on-going, month after month,” said Debra Lane, assistant town manager in Cape Elizabeth, where the heating fund allows one 100-gallon delivery per eligible family per year. Falmouth, North Yarmouth, Topsham and Freeport have similar policies, while Harpswell allows one delivery in the fall and another in the spring.

But in Scarborough, residents can get three 100-gallon deliveries per year through Project GRACE, a local nonprofit that has partnered with the town to provide heating assistance.

Acknowledging that dire economic circumstances don’t disappear overnight, Town Manager Tom Hall said it didn’t make sense to limit the program to one delivery per winter. In addition, “many times there are structural issues in the household where they may need help more than one time,” he said.

Scarborough’s partnership with Project GRACE sets it apart from most other towns that administer the heating funds out of their general assistance office.

Hall, who developed the program last summer and fall, said the town processes donations and does most of the fundraising for the heating fund by talking it up on televised public meetings.

But he chose to outsource the process of determining eligibility and coordinating fuel distribution to a nonprofit to protect residents’ confidentiality, and also to keep general assistance separate from the fuel fund.

That way, “there’s no blurring of the lines between someone qualifying for general assistance and those that aren’t,” Hall said.

Even though Scarborough handles the fundraising, the town has not donated any money to Project GRACE explicitly for heating assistance.

But in Falmouth, town councilors recently allocated $10,000 from the town’s undesignated fund balance toward heating assistance, and Freeport’s council just upped its annual donation to $7,000, $2,000 more than last year. One of the largest increases in town donations is in Harpswell, where selectmen are hoping voters will allocate $20,000 to the town’s heating assistance program at the annual Town Meeting in March. Last year, voters designated $5,000.

Harpswell’s Assistant Town Administrator Terri Sawyer said the increase was necessary because of the “incredible increase in need.” As of Jan. 29, the town had already helped 18 families pay their heating bills since the New Year, up from seven in January 2010.

Freeport has also seen a rise in applications to that town’s heating fund. Hanselman said she has assisted 35 families since heating season began, compared with 19 at this time during the 2010-2011 season.

Higher oil prices – $3.70 on Jan. 24 versus $3.23 at this time last year, according to the Governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security – mean the funds don’t stretch as far as they used to. As a result, many towns are encouraging residents and local businesses to donate.

South Portland recently received 2,500 gallons of oil from Global Oil, a gift that Kathleen Babeau, the city’s general assistance administrator, said she wished the city’s many other oil companies would match.

Not every town has a municipal heating fund. Places like Brunswick, Portland and Bath refer residents to area nonprofits, or to the local general assistance office.

But among town officials whose communities have a fund, there is nearly unanimous agreement that they serve an important role in the community.

Living in a warm home, Scarborough Town Manager Tom Hall said, is a “fundamental human right” he hopes the town can continue to provide into the future, even if more LIHEAP money becomes available.

Until then, everyone seems to be hoping the weather continues to cooperate.

“We get a fair share of heating requests, but we’ve had a mild winter,” Babeau said. “We’ve been very, very fortunate.”

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.