Monday, November 28, 2011

Federal Cuts Give Maine a Chill as Winter Approaches


November 27, 2011

Federal Cuts Give Maine a Chill as Winter Approaches


BANGOR, Me. — Michele Hodges works six days a week but still cannot afford a Maine winter’s worth of heat for her trailer in Corinth, a tiny town where snowmobiles can outnumber cars.

Ms. Hodges and her two teenage daughters qualified for federal heating assistance last year, but their luck might have run out. President Obama has proposed sharply cutting the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and Maine is at this point expecting less than half of the $55.6 million that it received last winter, even as more people are applying.

The average state benefit last year was about $800 for the season; now it may be closer to $300. Eligibility requirements have tightened too, and with oil prices climbing — the average in Maine was $3.66 a gallon last week, up from $2.87 a year ago — many here are anticipating days or weeks of forgoing heat.

“We’ll survive,” said Ms. Hodges, who is 49 and works as an accountant and a sorter at a recycling center. “We can put a blanket up to separate off the living room and just sleep in there. But those who don’t have jobs, who are disabled or whatever, I don’t know how they’re going to make it.”

Maine is more dependent on oil heat than any other state, and Gov. Paul R. LePage, a Republican, recently called for cutting heating oil consumption in half by 2014, partly by bringing more gas lines into the state.

For now, a patchwork of local fund-raising projects is seeking to replace some of the lost federal money. One of those projects is led by the author Stephen King, whose red Victorian home on a hill here, with a wrought-iron fence adorned with spiders and bats, is something of a local talisman.

Mr. King owns a Bangor radio station, WZON AM 620 and 103.1 FM The Pulse, where one of the hosts lived in and broadcast from a chilly hut last week to raise awareness about the loss of federal money and, hopefully, to raise $70,000 for heating oil assistance. Mr. King, a native Mainer who lived in a trailer as a young man, has said he and his wife, Tabitha, will match up to that amount.

“Everybody is just hurting, and everybody is scared,” Mr. King said in an interview last week. “If we took everything we had and tossed it into the pot, it still wouldn’t make much of a difference.”

Still, he said, “There was no question of not helping when we saw how much the cut was.”

Under Mr. Obama’s proposed budget, the overall heating aid program would get about $2.6 billion, down from $4.7 billion in 2010-11. The House and the Senate are considering smaller but still significant cuts, with the final amount yet to be determined.

Pat LaMarche, the radio host who spent the week outdoors wrapped in blankets, said that at current prices, $140,000 would buy about 38,000 gallons of heating oil. The station has raised about $20,000 so far.

“But if it can make us re-examine our priorities for a minute,” Ms. LaMarche said, “then maybe it will make a bigger impact than 38,000 gallons.”

At Penquis, a nonprofit agency in Bangor where people can apply for federal heating aid, more than 9,000 households have done so since August, said Melanie Hurlburt, a division manager there. The agency is booked solid into January for appointments to apply for heating assistance, she said, but this year’s average benefit of $332 will buy only 100 gallons of fuel. The Maine Energy Marketers Association, which represents the state’s heating oil dealers, estimates that an average household uses about 850 gallons a year.

“Clients are calling me back when they get the benefit and saying, ‘What am I going to do?’ ” Ms. Hurlburt said. “I hear a lot of reports about what temperature they plan to keep their homes at, and I’m amazed — you know, 50 degrees. You’re barely above keeping your pipes from freezing.” In Bangor, the average low in January is seven degrees. Rebecca Brunton, a recently divorced mother of three, applied for heating aid at Ms. Hurlburt’s office the other day in hopes of avoiding the situation she found herself in last winter: so behind on her oil bill that she stopped getting deliveries. She ended up lugging a five-gallon can to the gas station every day and buying $20 worth of kerosene at a time.

“I’m going to put plastic on the windows this year,” said Ms. Brunton, 40, a waitress who is studying to become a special education teacher. “If I don’t get the help, it’ll be hard. It’ll be cold. But I do have family I can rely on. It’s all the people out there with zero income that I worry about.”

Robert Ketch, 72, who filled out an application for heating aid shortly before Ms. Brunton did, said he lived on a monthly Social Security check of about $900. Mr. Ketch said that if turned down for assistance, he would survive the winter by doing what many a Mainer before him has.

“Tough through it,” he said.

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] Go to


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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