AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — As Andy Tasker watches his work hours and pay go down, his need for heating assistance goes up. The Auburn resident and thousands like him in Maine are facing drastic cuts in Low Income Home Energy Assistance, as the price of heating oil rises far above last year's level.
"This is a necessity to me," Tasker said Monday, just days after federal government told the Maine State Housing Authority that it should expect to receive $23 million for the program, down from $55.6 million last year — a 60 percent drop.
Maine Housing officials, and their counterparts around the Northeast, are hoping one of two bills in Congress will bolster heating assistance, but the outlook nonetheless is not good that the final amount will help people like Tasker.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said Wednesday he, too, is worried that federal cuts to heating assistance are coming at a time of increasing fuel prices — up 80 cents per gallon since November 2010 in parts of New England.
"The numbers are moving in the wrong direction," Shumlin said.
Tasker, 60, gets help from the federal program known as LIHEAP to help pay his rent in an oil-heated apartment building he lives in. He's worked since he was a teenager in a succession of jobs from dishwasher to structural steel painter. His latest, in a job-training organization, cut his paid hours from 22 to 14. That makes his LIHEAP check a necessity, he said.
"My landlady is a very understanding person. But that's only going to last so long," said Tasker, who picks up cans and bottles to supplement his income.
Maine Housing Executive Director Dale McCormick said Tasker isn't alone among the roughly 65,000 Maine families receiving LIHEAP. Even while heating oil prices were much lower and LIHEAP funding higher last year, some Mainers were nevertheless desperate for assistance, she said.
McCormick cited one case in Washington County in which a woman's house was so cold her doors froze closed, and her neighbors couldn't get to her until an emergency delivery of oil came. In another case, she said, a disabled veteran whose income was $4,000 a year broke down in tears when he received a $600 heating assistance check.
"It's so important a lifeline for a whole group of our fellow citizens," McCormick said.
In Vermont, LIHEAP paid for 262 gallons of No. 2 home heating oil last winter for the average participating household, Shumlin said. Cuts proposed by the Obama administration, combined with rising prices, would reduce that to 96 gallons this year. The average Vermont home that uses oil for heat burns 764 gallons per year, Shumlin's office said.
Shumlin said he's proposing a transfer of $2.5 million in state funds to LIHEAP from a program set up to make low-income residents' homes more energy-efficient.
Matt Cota, executive director of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, said that, combined with $11 million in federal funds, would allow the average household to buy 130 gallons of heating oil, assuming October's average price of $3.68 per gallon.
Shumlin said he had spoken with other governors around the Northeast, and they share his concern about LIHEAP funding. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office issued a statement saying that "given the continuing challenges facing our economy, this program is more essential than ever in providing a critical lifeline to those vulnerable New York households struggling to pay home energy bills."
Shumlin said Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick was coordinating a letter to Congress from the region's governors. A call to Patrick's office was referred to the state office that handles LIHEAP, where a spokeswoman did not immediately reply to a message left to her.
Maine's housing authority said it's joining the state's congressional delegation in urging Congress to approve more funding for the program. Last year, the average benefit was $804, and a little over half of the recipients were low-income seniors or disabled people.
But since last year, the federal government has made eligibility standards more difficult besides cutting back allocations. And that comes amid higher fuel prices and the housing authority's expectation that even more people will apply for help this season due to weak economic conditions, more people learning about the program and new enrollees who have scraped by in past winters, but are finally deciding to ask for help. The Housing authority says about 34 percent of Maine households, or 188,000, would meet income eligibility standards.
Maine officials are now hoping for action on legislation in Congress that would bolster the program's funding. A Senate budget bill would give $45.7 million in LIHEAP funding to Maine instead of the $23 million now promised, and it includes a provision to allocate more funds to cold-weather states. A House bill sets the amount at $33.9 million and does not include the cold-weather state provision, McCormick said.
Associated Press writer Dave Gram in Montpelier, Vt., contributed to this report.