By Chris Landers
BALTIMORE – Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. announced Tuesday that the state would add $13 million dollars to a program helping low-income families with their heating bills this winter.
In the face of spiraling costs for home heating fuels, officials are expecting more Marylanders to apply for energy assistance.
Mary Lou Kueffer, director of the state’s Office of Home Energy Programs, said the number of people applying this year has already risen 10 to 12 percent.
Ehrlich said the program will be expanded by raising the income limits for eligibility to 175 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, the new limit is $33,862.50 a year.
He also said a program to help winterize area homes will get an additional $400,000, and Baltimore Gas and Electric and Constellation Energy will kick in an additional $26 million for energy assistance and winterization programs.
The Governor made a “direct pitch to the people of Maryland,” asking them to “be a little more generous this winter,” and give to non-profits that help low income Maryland residents pay the bills.
The Maryland Energy Assistance program is largely funded by the federal government, which gave Maryland around $29 million last year. This year, Kueffer said, “we’re hoping we get somewhat more,” but she’s concerned that the amount could be less.
“This extra funding [from the state] is going to help us tremendously,” Kueffer said.
The latest projections from the federal Energy Information Administration indicate that consumers can expect to pay about 40 percent more to heat their homes with natural gas this winter than last. Heating oil will cost about 27 percent more. Although natural gas prices fell slightly at the end of October, they remain near record levels for this time of year.
Ehrlich announced the new funding at the home of Earl and Barbara Harris, a few blocks from Pimlico Racetrack.
Harris, a retired school bus driver, said he lives on a fixed income of about $700 a month, and last year’s heating bills took about half of that.
“You’ve got to eat, got a couple other bills to pay. This is going to help a lot,” Earl Harris said.
He gave a tour of his home, pointing out improvements made recently by the state and by local energy companies as part of a winterization program – weather stripping around the doors, expanding foam in cracks, insulation in the attic, a new door where rain used to leak into the basement and energy efficient light bulbs.
“Our heating bill was high [last year]” Barbara Harris said. “We had drafts – now we don’t have that.” She said she hoped her neighbors would sign up for the program. “We have to say ‘come forward.'” She said, adding that pride kept some from applying, but “when the cold weather hits, you don’t care who knows it.”