WASHINGTON – Fuel costs are soaring at a time when donations to fuel funds are declining, say advocates, who worry that some low-income residents may not be able to pay their heating bills this winter.
Energy assistance groups have been scrambling to raise extra funds since the Energy Department reported this fall that it expects energy bills to jump between 17 and 30 percent from last winter’s prices.
“We know people are going to need a lot more support this year than other years,” said Mary Ellen Vanni, director of the Fuel Fund of Maryland.
Her organization manages a $1 million grant from Baltimore Gas & Electric to help low-income residents with their energy bills. It also raises private contributions for that fund through a BG&E campaign that asks customers to send in a donation with their own bills.
Help is also available through Maryland churches, which give out more than $6 million a year for heating bills, said Mary D’Ambrogi of the St. Vincent De Paul Society. And the Maryland Energy Assistance Program distributed $17.2 million in federal funds to qualifying families in the state last year.
Vanni said the envelope fund raised about $250,000 last year, a 50 percent decrease from 1995. The Fuel Fund will mount an advertising and direct-mail campaign this year in an effort to boost donations, she said.
“We had such a demand last year that we really dispersed all of our reserve funds by March. We’re really running behind this year,” Vanni said.
Fuel Fund envelopes will be mailed out in BG&E bills in December and January and that donations should rise after that, Vanni said. Few applications for assistance have been filed so far, she said, but that should pick up as the weather turns colder.
Vanni said the Fuel Fund served 5,000 families last year, but for every one served, 37 more families qualify.
State officials served 65,000 households last year with the $17.2 million in federal funds they distributed. They expect the same level of funding this year, even though it will not stretch as far because of higher fuel prices.
“Even if the program is funded at the same level, it ends up being a cut in assistance because prices are expected to be higher,” said Cindy Amberg of the state energy assistance program.
The program pays heating suppliers, who credit homeowners’ bills with the money. It pays about 55 percent of the heating costs for the poorest recipients. Amberg said payments range from $160 to $415 a year and she expects aid this year to average $254 per qualified household.
About 255,000 Maryland households could qualify for assistance, Amberg said, but only a fraction got help. Vanni blames a lack of publicity.
“There isn’t much advertisement for the program because they know they have a limited amount of money,” she said. “It’s not an entitlement benefit, but first-come, first-serve.”
If there is a bright spot, it is that meteorologists are predicting a mild winter, which could help offset higher fuel costs. Anthony Barnston, senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service, expects a normal amount of precipitation and warmer-than-average temperatures in Maryland.
“There will be certain spells where it will be noticeably mild, probably in the 50s for a few days at a time,” Barnston said. “I’m not saying there won’t be any cold weather but there will be breaks. There probably will be some snow but not a lot.”