Winter Fuel Costs Up; Fuel Assistance Lags (Hardwick Gazette)

By Mike Schaefer

Many Vermonter, especially those in Hardwick and the surrounding areas, are preparing for the seasonally cold winter months by ordering home heating oil and cords of wood from local companies. But for those who often feel the pinch of the winter heating costs, the season represents a significant downturn in access to appropriate services.

Tuesday, Gov. Jim Douglas sent a letter to President Bush on behalf of the Coalition of Northeast Governors, urging a release of the remaining $120 million in contingency funds fro the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

According to the Vermont Agency of Human Service's Fuel Assistance Program, $11.7 million was allocated from the state's LIHEAP during the upcoming winter. What that equates to is an average benefit of $603 per household or the equivalent of 133 gallons of fuel for the entire winter heating season.

"It's kind of the big question this year about how much we need in terms of what the average benefit was last year and what the purchasing power of this year's dollars equates to," said Richard Moffi, Vermont's fuel assistance program chief. "Right now, it's a base benefit of about $600 per household or 133 gallons of heating oil. That doesn't last long in a Vermont winter."

Moffi said that in the past 12 years, the president and Congress have always been there when more money is needed for the program through contingency and emergency funding. The fact that Douglas is urging for contingency funding to be released now is some what of a red flag.

The governors has voiced their support for the efforts of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, to provide an additional $2.73 billion in FY/2008 funding for LIHEAP in regular program and contingency funding. In light of a recent defeat of the Sanders bill, the governors believe the prompt release of the remaining contingency funding is critical to ensuring states - particularly those in the Northeast - can adequately prepare for the fall heating season.

"Through initiatives like the Wood Warms program and weatherization assistance offered through my Fuel and Food Partnership, my administration is actively addressing challenges presented by the upcoming heating season," Douglas wrote in his letter. "It is clear however that te federal government must release LIHEAP contingency funds in a timely manner so that we can continue to meet the needs of lower income families at the start of the fall season."

Last year, Vermont provided the most generaous LIHEAP benefits in the country with an average benefit reaching $1,169 per household and serving 28,000 low-income Vermont households. That's also where Moffi said there is cause for concern.

"As if right now, we're running 22 percent ahead of where we were last year at this time in terms of applications with a shade under 18,000," said Moffi. "Even with that extra $715,000 it's not everything we need but every little bit counts."

Moffi also said the fuel assitace program which usually works in coordination with Vermont's weatherization assistance program his having to work harder because of the lack of funding overall for both.

"In years past, we were able to give weatherization some funding to enhance their efforts, but now we've been forced to pinch every penny as well," said Moffi. "Weatherization has done a great deal in terms of prepping homes to be more home heating efficient, so if we offer less than they can offer less, which ends up costing more to heat those homes."

"We have an energy emergency," said bill sponsor Sanders when he introduced the funding bill in July. "Given the escalating cost of home heating fuels, if we don't dramatically increase funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, senior citizens on fixed incomes, the disabled, and low-income families with children will go cold this winter."

According to the Energy Department, the average price of heating oil per gallon is almost 50 percent higher than it was last year and is outpacing the average price of gasoline per gallon nationwide. In certain parts o New England - home to about three-quarters of homes heated with oil-furnaces - that threatens to translate into heating oil prices approaching $5 and even $6 per gallon this winter, according to local estimates.

According to Moffi, there is still time to apply for fuel assistance benefits. He also said there are other resources to help struggling households this winter.

"In June, Gov. Douglas announce his Fuel and Food Initiative, which outline how the cost of fuel and food is really stretching Vermont's to the limit," said Moffi. "A website - www.helpforvt.org - was created ad includes a wealth of information for Vermonters on how to reduce energy use, apply for assistance and many other ways to help them in the coming months. As far as Fuel Assistance, we're still encouraging Vermonters to apply now so that they can get their benefit by November. Every penny counts."