BALTIMORE – Gertrude Price watches utility expenses where she can, turning off the furnace when she leaves the house, turning off the lights when she leaves the room and relying on a pot of hot water on the stove to heat the downstairs.
“I try to be careful,” said Price, 86. But with the government forecasting a sharp spike in home-heating fuels this winter, Price is looking for help paying the bills to heat her Baltimore home.
So when she heard that Baltimore City and Baltimore Gas and Electric officials were coming to the Oliver Senior Center last month to offer help with utilities, she signed up.
City and state officials said they have increased outreach efforts to make sure that people like Price are not left in the cold this winter.
“We are aggressively going out on the street,” said Reggie Scriber, associate commissioner of community services for Baltimore’s Department of Housing and Community Development.
That outreach could be especially important this year. Prices for heating oil and natural gas are up 30 and 10 percent, respectively, from last fall, according to the state’s Office of Home Energy Programs, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting a colder-than-average winter in the mid-Atlantic region.
Outreach began in August and Scriber said that as of last week, his department was about 3,000 applications ahead of the same time last year. He hopes to get 35,000 residents to apply for assistance by June, up from 25,000 last year.
That is still well below the roughly 60,000 people in Baltimore who Scriber believes are eligible for heating assistance, based on the number of people using social services in the city. Not everyone applies, he said, because they are not aware of the program or cannot get to one of the city’s eight local home energy program offices during the week.
In an effort to reverse that, city officials have enlisted churches to spread the word and take applications, have gone door-to-door in some neighborhoods and have opened six centers on Saturdays, Scriber said.
“We are looking at . . . a range of new ways to reach people in this city to make sure we cover them as best we can,” Scriber said.
By visiting people in their homes, Scriber said his employees can also get a sense of each homeowner’s energy needs and can more quickly find ways to lower monthly bills with solutions like the installation of storm windows.
Two programs are available to help low-income residents with their heating bills. The state expects to get about $30 million from the federal government in fiscal 2005 for the Maryland Energy Assistance Program, while the Electric Universal Service Program, which is funded by a surcharge on utility bills, is expected to bring in about $34 million this fiscal year.
Assistance levels in both programs is based on household size, income, energy type and other factors. Under the programs, the money may go directly to the utility, instead of to the homeowner, who may also be required to participate in a budget program to get assistance. Homeowners are responsible for paying the difference between the grants and their monthly bills.
Both programs are operated under the Maryland Department of Human Resources’ Office of Home Energy Programs.
The office’s director, Mary Lou Kueffer, said Baltimore is not the only jurisdiction that is reaching out to get more low-income people to sign up.
Prince George’s and Montgomery counties both had energy expos, where utilities took heating assistance applications and answered questions on how to lower heating costs, and the state will observe Energy Assistance Week from Feb. 20-26. Baltimore plans a similar energy expo that week, she said.
Scriber said officials work even harder to help residents whose utilities have been cut off, by breaking the homeowner’s bills down to several payments or appealing to private donors to help with costs. If a family has young children, the Department of Housing and Community Service tells BGE, which restores power immediately, Scriber said.
“My heart bleeds. It’s a difficult situation, but we have to find answers,” Scriber said.
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