High unemployment, cold temperatures and declining federal allocations to the Maryland Energy Assistance Program could mean lower subsidies for the about 4,000 Washington County households seeking help with their heating bills this winter.
Congress funded the federal Low Income Energy Assistance Program for fiscal 2010 at about $5 billion, resulting in $85 million for Maryland's energy assistance program, said David G. Jordan, executive director of the Washington County Community Action Council, which administers the program locally.
However, Congress originally allocated about $3 billion for this winter, reducing Maryland's share to $54 million, he said.
Maryland Democratic U.S. Sens. Benjamin Cardin and Barbara Mikulski recently announced that increased energy assistance funding boosted Maryland's share to about $77 million.
"It helped me and my family a lot," Chiquita Brown of Hagerstown said recently of MEAP. Brown, who is employed, said that with a household of six, the assistance has helped pay her winter electric bills in recent years.
"If they take it away I'll sign everything I can to try and keep it," Brown said of MEAP.
Applications went out in July to households that received MEAP assistance last year, and new applications have been coming in from people seeking help for the first time, Jordan said.
Another mailing was being prepared for those who got help last year, but had yet to apply this winter, he said.
This year's income eligibility limits range from $18,950.50 for an individual to $51,677.50 for a family of six, according to MEAP guidelines.
For those who heat with electricity or natural gas, payments are electronically transferred from the state treasury to the utility, Jordan said. The assistance is applied to the estimated portion of a utility bill used for heating, he said.
For those who heat with oil, propane or other fuels, payments are made to the vendor, Jordan said.
"We keep processing applications and, as long as the state has money, we keep paying," Jordan said.
The average assistance to county households has been $1,000 or more some years, but Smith said this winter it will average about $280.
The jobless rate in Washington County was 9.8 percent in November and 10.1 percent in December of last year, according to Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation figures.
The average daily temperature in December was 29 degrees, the lowest in a decade, according to local weather observer Greg Keefer's website.
Higher unemployment and higher heating consumption can mean increased demand for help, said Smith. The amount of available money might be spread thinner, depending on how many people apply, she said.
Those signed up for MEAP are automatically enrolled in the Electric Universal Service Program, which helps qualified households pay electric bills, Jordan said.
The average EUSP benefit this year is $150, paid to the utility in 12 monthly increments, Smith said.
MEAP, EUSP and other heating and energy assistance programs are a subsidy to low-income households and are not meant to pay entire utility bills, Jordan said.
Some people believe utilities cannot disconnect service in the winter, but he cautioned they can, although the companies face a series of regulatory obstacles before doing so.