WASHINGTON – Between an uncertain economy, an already harsh winter and a possible cut in federal funding, officials at the Maryland Energy Assistance Program have their work cut out for them this year.
The only thing they know for sure is that low-income Marylanders will need a little help in covering fuel costs.
“Every year when they are planning a budget in Congress it’s difficult because you never really know how much you’ll get and you never know how cold it will be,” said Ralph Markus, an analyst for the program.
MEAP officials said they will take their best guess at a budget while waiting for Congress to act, striving in the meantime to serve every qualified applicant in Maryland.
Congress left town last month without acting on President Bush’s proposal to cut federal energy assistance funds by 18 percent this fiscal year. Cuts to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program would have translated into a $4 million cut in the MEAP budget this winter, from $26 million to $22 million.
Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, said his group is skeptical that Congress will go along with the president, but bracing for the possibility that it might.
“The overall consensus in the House is that it couldn’t pass. But you don’t know,” he said.
Rather than go into the red by operating on last year’s budget, many states are either cutting their caseloads or their per-case benefits.
Maryland officials expect to get less money from Congress, but hope to keep serving the same number of people at the same level of assistance as last year.
That assistance does not add up to much. MEAP provides $255 a year for gas heat, $245 a year for oil heat or $235 for electric heat for a family of four whose income is between $1,509 and $2,263 a month.
Markus outlined a typical case.
“Say electricity is $100 a month, rent is six ($600), $700 and you’re trying to feed a family. That’s not too much help,” he said.
This year’s economic downturn could mean that more Maryland families need help paying their heating bills, officials said. If that happens, administrators would see an increased caseload alongside decreased funding.
“In our office we’ve been on the edge of our seats wondering if it’s going to filter down to that level,” Markus said. “At this point we’re saying that we can provide for every applicant, but we’re not quite sure.”
Harriet Hertz is not wondering. As director of the Baltimore County Heat Energy Program, she has already begun to see applicants who have been laid off or had their hours cut.
“With the change in the economy we are getting a lot of people coming in,” she said.
Hertz is concerned that Bush’s proposal could leave her agency without the capacity to take on new customers or even to serve the steady stream of elderly customers whose budgets “are really hurt by prescription costs.”
Markus said the rising cost of heating fuels is also a factor. Over half of all households heat their homes with natural gas, which Markus said doubled in price two winters ago. The Energy Information Administration predicted that it will cost 19 percent more this winter.
“The way prices are going I think that this is a program that deserves to be funded,” Markus said.
Ruth Harrod, the director of the Southern Maryland Tri-County Community Action Center’s home energy office, feels certain that the center will meet its registration goals this winter.
But as to whether there will be the funding to provide for them, Ruth is leaving that to a higher power.
“We hope,” she said. “That’s all we can do is hope and pray. That’s why we urge people to get in now because we don’t know what’s going to happen on the Hill.”