Utility starts heating-aid campaign early (Burlington Free Press)

By Lauren Ober

It's unlikely that anyone in Vermont will be surprised by an increased heating bill this winter. As oil prices continue to climb, Vermonters are expecting to pay more than they did last year for heat. Just how much those bills are likely to increase might come as a shock.

It's estimated that the average low-income Vermont family will see their heating oil costs increase by 82 percent, says Tim Searles, executive director of the Champlain Valley Office for Economic Opportunity. If a family spent $2,000 on 800 gallons of No. 2 fuel oil last winter, it is likely they will spend at least $3,640 this year, Searles said.

The dramatic spike in oil prices is causing anxiety for the thousands of Vermonters who rely on heating assistance to get through the winter. In order to make sure that these Vermonters, and those who might need heating assistance for the first time, aren't left out in the cold, Central Vermont Public Service is beginning its Shareheat campaign five months earlier than usual in order to drum up financial support before the need becomes crucial.

The Shareheat program is one of two public/private fuel partnerships in the state. It serves as a last resort for people within the CVPS service territory who have either expired their other assistance options, or who don't qualify for assistance based on income, but due to some crisis find themselves unable to pay for heating oil. The program, which has operated for 20 years, is designed to be a "neighbor helping neighbor" program, CVPS spokesman Steve Costello says. Individuals donate money to the program, and that money is then matched by CVPS shareholders and donated back to the community.

Last year, the program awarded $300,000 to families in need, the most CVPS has ever given out. This year, Costello estimates the company will far surpass that amount.

Nearly 1,000 families received assistance in 2007 that totaled about $300 per family. This year, that amount won't even be enough for one oil delivery, Costello said. CVPS and its community action agencies like CVOEO are looking to form partnerships with local businesses to defray the soaring costs.

"We're starting now because we want people to think about how they're able to help now. We also want people to think about how they're going to heat their own homes," Costello said.

One business that has partnered with CVPS is Omya in Rutland County. With a $10,000 donation, the company found a meaningful way to give back to the community, said Christie Harris, Omya's external affairs manager.

"We really look at where our dollars will have the most impact, and with Shareheat, our donation will have a big impact," Harris said.

The situation that the state finds itself in with regards to heating costs is unprecedented, says Searles. Heating oil costs are rising and the money that CVPS normally gives out through Shareheat will not go nearly as far as it once did. And with more people needing assistance, programs like Shareheat will be strapped.

"This really is a recipe for disaster going into this winter," Searles said. "People might be able to scrape together enough to pay for one minimum 125-gallon delivery, but they won't be able pay for another shipment.

"We need an unprecedented response to keep people from going cold this winter."