AUGUSTA (AP) – Despite their complaints, the vast majority of heating oil dealers across the state signed up for a state program that requires a discount for low-income fuel customers who qualify for federal heating assistance.

As of this week, 86 percent of the oil dealers who participated last season have signed contracts for the upcoming heating season, said Dale McCormick, director of the Maine State Housing Authority, which oversees the program.

The state program is aimed at stretching dollars from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Oil dealers who participate are required to give discounted oil to those customers who qualify for the federal program.

There are several options for oil dealers, but the option that caused them to cry foul is a discount on the daily cash price for LIHEAP customers. This year, the state increased the retail discount by 4 cents per gallon.

LIHEAP serves about 50,000 of Maine’s low income families, and the MSHA’s tweaking of the program should mean another 541,000 gallons of heating oil over last year, agency said.

The Maine Oil Dealers Association contends the discount could drive oil dealers to charge higher prices to other customers, withdraw from LIHEAP or simply take a serious financial blow.

Webber Energy Fuels opted to withdraw from the program. Dead River and Downeast Energy companies currently aren’t taking new customers in the program.

But McCormick said LIHEAP customers shouldn’t panic if they get a letter from a dealer who’s opting out of the program. There “are plenty of oil dealers who are participating to take care of all customers,” she said.

AP-ES-09-20-07 1717EDT

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