Heating concerns (Brattleboro Reformer, Editorial)

It's a story you often hear this time of year.

A family runs out of heating oil and can't afford to buy more. They try to keep the house warm with electric or kerosene space heaters. They know it could be dangerous and they try to be careful, but something happens.

Sometimes, it's carbon monoxide poisoning, from using an improperly vented heater. Sometimes, it's a chimney fire, from a improperly maintained wood stove with a flue caked with creosote. Sometimes, it's an electrical fire, from aging wiring overloaded by too many heaters plugged in at once.

The outcome can often be deadly. If you are lucky and escape death, you are left without a place to live and in even worse shape financially than you were when the oil ran out.

Tuesday's house fire in Hinsdale, N.H., was a example of what can happen when the oil runs out. Fortunately, everyone who lived there got out safely and the building appears to be salvageable. Unfortunately, this story will likely be repeated elsewhere around the region and the ending will not likely be as good.

Heating oil, propane, kerosene and firewood are all at record price levels. People already stretched to

the limit financially are having trouble coming up with the money they need to keep warm.

The federal government's Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) provides heating subsidies for the poor and elderly. In Vermont, money is available to residents whose income is at or below 125 percent of the poverty level, or about $26,000 for a family of four. About 20,000 Vermont households received aid last year.

But over the last few years, more people have had to apply for assistance as the money available has dwindled. Nationally, the number of households needing aid rose from 4.6 million in 2003 to about 5.7 million this year. While there are 26 percent more families that need aid, funding for LIHEAP has increased by only 10 percent and has not kept pace with skyrocketing energy costs.

Vermont has had to step in to fill the gap, providing nearly $18 million in aid over the last four years. But the average LIHEAP benefit in Vermont -- $1,100, which is fairly generous compared to other states -- still is inadequate. An average home uses about 800 gallons of heating oil a season. At current prices, it will cost about $2,700 to heat that average home.

But the Bush administration doesn't seem to care that energy prices are rising. It has proposed a $379 million cut in LIHEAP funding. That translates into about $8.8 million of heating aid for Vermont, down from $11.6 million last year, according to the National Energy Assistance Director's Association.

The Vermont congressional delegation has been pushing hard to get more money to pay for LIHEAP. Sens. Bernard Sanders and Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter Welch have introduced bills to provide an additional $1 billion for the program. Vermont Gov. James Douglas has thrown his support behind the legislation, and Douglas has also called for a federal investigation into rising fuel costs.

Locally, the Windham County Heat Fund is trying to raise money to provide help for those who don't qualify for LIHEAP. Fund organizers say the demand for help is far outpacing the amount of money they have.

"The truth of the matter is that we're the wealthiest nation in the history of the world," Sanders said a recent fundraiser in Brattleboro for the Heat Fund. "The truth of the matter is that we shouldn't have to be here tonight talking about this issue. The idea of cutting the LIHEAP fund at a time when fuel prices are exploding is just beyond belief."

We agree. There is absolutely no reason at all for LIHEAP funding to be cut. While Congress and President Bush dicker over funding, families are shivering in cold houses or risking death with makeshift heating sources.

There is a heating crisis going on in Vermont and the rest of the Northeast. It is real, and it is not going to go away. Action must be taken now.