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More getting heating aid

January 27, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

The cost of fuel for their oil-powered furnace prompted Larry and Kelli Lushbaugh to apply for assistance through the Maryland Energy Assistance Program this year.

Kelli Lushbaugh said her family wouldn't be able to pay their heating bills without the help, even though she and her husband work. They have to refill their oil tank about four times each winter, she said, and "with a lot of oil companies, you can't pay monthly. They want about $200 up front, and we just can't do it."

The Lushbaughs aren't alone. Hundreds more Washington County households are applying for help this year from the federally funded Maryland Energy Assistance Program and the Electric Universal Service Program to pay their heating and electric bills. Thousands more are seeking assistance across the state.

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More than 2,300 Washington County households have sought assistance so far this winter, said Tina Barse, home energy coordinator for the Community Action Council, which administers the program. Of those, 1,800 have been approved for assistance.

Last year at this point, she said, about 2,600 county households had applied for help. More than 2,100 got help with heat or electric bills.

Statewide, the Office of Home Energy Programs reports the number of applicants is up by 9,300 to 9,500 over last year.

"We expect those numbers will go up even higher," said Program Specialist Randy Graybeal.

The reason so many are seeking assistance this year?

"My personal opinion is that it's several things," Barse said. "It's high fuel costs, the cold weather and the economy."

Lushbaugh said her mother persuaded her to contact the Community Action Council.

"She said 'go there. You need the help, just go'," Lushbaugh said.

"We were embarrassed and stuff, but those ladies were so nice, they made it easier for us." Lushbaugh said.

The assistance paid for one tank of fuel oil for the Lushbaughs' home, she said.

Ralph Markus, acting director of the Office of Home Energy Programs, said that until three years ago there had been a downward trend in the number of applicants for assistance - by about 5 percent per year. But when the Electric Universal Service Program began in 2000, the numbers started to go up - in part because the program helped people catch up on past-due electric bills, he said.

The numbers dipped last year, he said, because many of those customers didn't come back.

"And last year we had a mild winter," he said.

This year, Markus said, "We've stepped up our outreach and we've had cold weather. And the fact that we had snow in early December helped. Snow brings people out."

Markus said he expects Maryland will have at least 10,000 more applicants for assistance this year than last year.

Applicants for energy assistance must meet eligibility requirements. Income limits are determined by household size, Barse said. The gross monthly income limit for a family of four is $2,263; the limit for individuals is $1,168.

"Many of our customers are elderly and on fixed incomes," Barse said. "About 30 percent are elderly or handicapped.

"We've had some people come back a second time because they've used their benefit, and they still can't make it," Barse said.

Those who come back may leave empty-handed.

"Once they've received their energy benefit, there isn't any more to give," Barse said.

Only one credit is permitted each year. Eligible households may reapply next year.

The council refers clients to other sources when possible, such as the Department of Social Services, the Salvation Army or the Council of Churches, Barse said.

David Jordan, executive director of the Community Action Council, said the council has access to about $40,000 beyond the energy assistance programs to help with utility bills or rental assistance.

Graybeal said that, typically, 91 percent to 92 percent of applicants statewide receive benefits. Many households qualify for assistance through both programs, he said.

Eligibility requirements are the same for both.

Lushbaugh said she hopes her family won't need assistance next year.

"But if we do, I know it will be there."

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