WASHINGTON – Kim Orefice, a single mother of two from Dundalk, never wanted to turn to the government for help, but when she got a $700 shut-off notice from her heating company this winter, she didn’t know what else to do.
“When the gas prices shot up, that put a lot of hurting on my budget,” Orefice said.
Her heating bills were running about $350 a month and it was more than she could afford on the $22,000 a year that she makes as a Baltimore County school bus driver.
“If it wasn’t for the money from (the Maryland Energy Assistance Program) and the Fuel Fund (of Maryland), my kids probably wouldn’t even be eating this winter,” she said.
MEAP, one of the programs that helped bring Orefice’s heating bills down to a more manageable $192, received about $27 million dollars in federal aid Thursday to add to the $33 million in federal aid it already had.
“It’s needed. Despite the fact it was warm in the Northeast, gas and heating oil prices were up and the demand for heating assistance was high,” said George Coling, the executive director of the National Fuel Fund Network.
The money was a part of a federal package that moved $1 billion in Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funds from FY 2007 to this year.
The bill was introduced in the Senate because many northern states had already spent all their federal funding.
“It’s a great victory. It’s the most money we have ever had added for LIHEAP,” said Mark Wolfe, the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association.
While Maryland’s share is marginally less than Wolfe’s preliminary prediction, Maryland ended up with more money than many other states.
Wolfe explained that the warm weather states were favored in this new formula and, by these standards, “Maryland is the beginning of the South.”
Mary Lou Kueffer, director of the Maryland Office of Home Energy Programs, said she was thrilled about the boost to the program, but does not have a spending strategy yet.
“I don’t have a plan in place right now. We have to look at what’s best for our applicants,” said Kueffer.
Tentative ideas have included putting money toward anticipated rate hikes in electricity, helping to stave off utility shut-offs due to non-payment, extending the state-funded Project Heat Up through April 30, among others.
The only “handicap” to the money, she said, is that all of it must be spent on clients, not administrative costs.
“If you get more money, then you need to administer it. You need to keep your waiting rooms open longer, you need to keep your staff overtime and you need money to do that,” Coling said. “Many of the agencies are hard pressed as it is.”
Wolfe also said that this is the first year that LIHEAP money can go to pay for a cooling program, noting that extreme heat can bring health risks, too, like heat stroke and heat-related deaths.
Orefice said she would be interested in an air conditioning assistance to guard against even more routine health problems.
“My kids have asthma and they can’t be out there in that hot, hot heat. I mean what are you going to do? You can’t drive them around in the car because the gas is so high,” she said.
There are still many people who are eligible for the program who are not enrolled. Also, the government only pays a percentage of, not the entire, energy bill.
Orefice said that, while it was hard for her to pay her bills, she could not even imagine how difficult it is for others who make less than she does.
“I feel sorry for myself because I can’t make it but what about these other people? How are these people going to make it on $1,700 a month?”