ANNAPOLIS- Despite “fairly disappointing” federal funding, still-high fuel costs and a growing number of applicants, state and local agencies are preparing for an expanded statewide energy assistance program set to start next week.
Enrollment for Project Heat Up, a plan launched by Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in November to help low income families pay their fuel bills, starts Sunday and lasts through March 31. As many as 65,000 additional households will become eligible for assistance grants to offset heating costs as a result of the governor’s initiative.
The program makes households with incomes at 175 percent of the federal poverty level – or about a $33,900 for a family of four – eligible for a standardized benefit. The income level for the regular energy assistance program is 150 percent of the poverty level, and assistance can vary based on fuel type and usage.
Ralph Markus, deputy director of the Maryland Office of Home Energy Programs, estimated that around 30 percent of eligible households, and possibly more, would apply for the new program. He said that his agency has already seen at least a 7 to 9 percent increase in applications in the normal energy assistance program this year.
The agency’s director, Mary Lou Kueffer said money for the new program is tight because federal funding – about $32 million – has not increased over last year. The cost of natural gas increased 41 percent nationally between October 2004 and October 2005 and heating oil went from around $1.80 a gallon to $2.70 during the same period according to government figures.
Ehrlich’s initiative provided the office of home energy programs with an additional $12.7 million. About a third to half of it has been set aside for Project Heat Up. Kueffer says that will help, but is no guarantee that the program will not run out of money.
“Since we have had an increase in enrollment, that’s where the shortfall could come,” she said, though she stressed that people should not panic.
The likelihood of increased enrollment has spurred a number of the local agencies where the enrollments will take place to reorganize, work overtime or hire new staff to keep up with the growing number of people looking for some relief.
“We don’t know what we’re in for yet,” said Sheila Murdock, director of the Anne Arundel County program. She said that a large number of applicants who were denied assistance earlier this year could become eligible under the new program and has brought in two temporary employees to deal with the increased workload.
“We’ll give it our best shot,” she said. Susan Malone, program director in Allegany County, said she has extended hours of three employees and added one part-timer to prepare for Project Heat Up.