Help from Maryland Energy Assistance Program will be less

December 05, 2011|By DON AINES |
  • Dave Jordan, executive director of the Washington County Community Action Council
Dave Jordan, executive director of the Washington County Community Action Council

The "crisis season" began Nov. 15 and runs through the end of March, but those who need help from the Maryland Energy Assistance Program to stay warm this winter will be waiting longer and receiving less.

"Please note that due to decreased funding, your benefit will be less," the Office of Home Energy Programs advises on its website.

The reduction and holdup in funding is a result of the federal government's lack of a budget, said Dave Jordan, executive director of the Washington County Community Action Council.

"Two years ago, the feds funded the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) at its maximum amount of $5 billion nationwide," Jordan said. That figure was reduced to $4.2 billion in the 2011 fiscal year and is expected to be $3.1 billion for fiscal 2012, which began Oct. 1.

Congress and the White House did not come up with a budget, and the continuing resolution to fund federal programs expires Dec. 16, Jordan said. Congress is expected to pass an omnibus spending bill to fund the federal government at some point, Jordan said.

Until then, the Maryland Department of Human Resources does not know how much of the $3.1 billion it will receive to develop the "benefits matrix" for income-eligible households, Jordan said. Simply put, the lower the income and larger the household, the more heating and energy assistance a household can qualify for, he said.

The proposals for how much money will be available through LIHEAP for Maryland vary from $30 million up to $70 million, depending on whether the proposal is that of the White House, U.S. Senate or U.S. House versions, Maryland Department of Human Resources spokesman Pat Hines said.

"It's difficult to know with some certainty where it's going to land," Hines said of the final number.

If the federal government approves a spending plan on or before the Dec. 16 deadline, it will likely be January before Maryland Energy Assistance Program (MEAP) payments are made.

"During the crisis season, if someone comes in and says they are out of heating oil, we have prescribed requirements for getting them a delivery," Jordan said. Without the benefit matrix being determined, he said, "we cannot authorize any deliveries."

"We've been receiving an inordinate amount of calls from people saying they are out of oil or kerosene" or other fuel, Jordan said.

"We're getting 60 to 70 calls a day from people asking,'When am I going to get my MEAP benefit,'" said Linda Green, service coordination director of the Garrett County Community Action Council. "People are used to already getting their MEAP benefit by now."

The temperature dipped to 17 degrees last Thursday night, Green said.

Green and Community Action Council Executive Director Duane Yoder will meet with the Garrett County Commissioners today to ask them to pressure the state for action.

Many of the more than 3,200 households that receive MEAP benefits are elderly citizens or low-income working families with children, Green said.

In July, the council sends MEAP applications to those who received them the previous year, Jordan said. In the following months, the applications are processed as the state develops its benefit matrix, Jordan said. Approximately 4,000 county households apply for energy assistance each year, he said. A person living alone and earning $19,057.50 or less a year is eligible for MEAP, according to the Maryland Office of Home Energy Programs, while a household of four can have an income up to $39,112.50 and qualify.

There are about 61,000 housing units in the county, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

For qualifying homes that use natural gas or electricity for heating, the MEAP benefit is paid by the state to the utility, Jordan said. For people who heat with oil, kerosene, propane and other fuels, benefit payments to the local vendor are authorized by the community action council, Jordan said.

Typically, a MEAP benefit might pay 25 percent of a home's annual heating bill, but that percentage is declining along with the federal funding, Jordan said.

"A lot of people consider this an entitlement program, and it probably is," Jordan said. At the same time, people are expected to pay their utility and fuel bills, Jordan said.

Even if money is short, he recommends people pay at least part of their bill and work with their utility or fuel vendor.

Some people believe their utilities cannot be shut off during the winter, "but that's a fallacy," Jordan said. "It's a little more difficult, but they can do it."

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