By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — While other Addison County residents opened presents last Christmas, Jinny Duncan and her family were simply thankful to be spending the day in a warm house.
And the way fuel costs are going, Duncan isn’t optimistic there will be many gifts to open this Christmas, either.
“Higher fuel costs means the difference between having the money to pay for things you need every day, and having enough heat to keep the kids warm,” Duncan, a Bristol resident, said.
“It’s a very scary time to be a Vermonter.”
Many other area families are now sharing that same view on the cusp of a Vermont winter that will dawn with the national economy in a dive and heating fuel prices — already above an average of $3.50 per gallon — poised to rise further with demand.
“Everyone is really concerned this year,” said Karen Haury, executive director of Addison Community Action/Central Vermont Office of Economic Opportunity (ACA/CVOEO). “(Fuel prices) are on everybody’s mind almost everywhere you go. That’s what they are talking about.”
Haury on Monday conducted a survey of six Addison County heating fuel dealers and found prices for No. 2 heating oil ranging from $3.59 per gallon to $4.26 per gallon.
And that’s not where prices will stay, if recent history is any indication, according to Haury.
“Within a week, I expect to see a big spike up,” she said.
And when those prices spike as demand rises and the nights get colder, needy households — a broadening segment of the population in today’s economy — will seek assistance from ACA/CVOEO, other human services organizations and area citizen/church groups.
Trouble is, providers believe there is the potential for a “perfect storm” in the fuel assistance business this year: Greater competition for potentially fewer subsidy dollars to buy a commodity that could be substantially more expensive than last winter.
“What the market traditionally does is … when the demand goes up, the price (of heating fuel) goes up,” said Richard Moffi, Vermont’s Fuel Assistance Program chief. “There is nothing on the horizon indicating that prices will continue to go down when the demand will be going up.”
Vermont’s Seasonal Fuel Assistance Program is in line for a base grant of $11.6 million through the federal Low-income Home Energy Assistance Program (LiHEAP). Last week, the Bush administration sweetened that amount by $2.5 million in federal contingency funds.
While that extra money is good news, the overall $14.1 million budget is still far less than the $23 million in fuel assistance funds the state had at its disposal last year. That $23 million included $16.7 million in federal funds and $6.3 million in state money, according to Moffi.
“And our buying power was much better last year with the lower fuel prices,” Moffi said.
People are already lining up for the limited subsidy money, Moffi noted.
Statistics provided through the economic services division of the Vermont Department of Children and Families indicates 32,790 households have already applied for help through the Seasonal Fuel Assistance Program. That’s up from the total of 30,306 households that applied for assistance through all of last year. People have until late February to apply for a subsidy through the seasonal program, which sets up accounts for eligible families with area fuel dealers. The payments go directly to the dealers.
“It’s been steady,” Moffi said of the stream of applications for assistance, noting that people had until Aug. 31 to apply for a November fuel benefit.
A total of 21,680 received benefits through the Seasonal Fuel Assistance Program last winter, including 904 Addison County families. Moffi anticipates caseloads to go up by 10 percent to 12 percent, given the current economy and price of fuel.
Qualifying households must earn no more than 125 percent of the federal poverty guideline. That translates into not more than $1,834 per month for a family of three or $2,209 per month for a family of four.
Barring an infusion of additional aid, the surging caseloads will likely mean eligible families will get an average benefit of $555 for the entire season — enough to buy 138 gallons of fuel if the price is $4 per gallon.
By comparison, the Seasonal Fuel Assistance Program paid an average benefit of $1,362 per eligible family last winter, when fuel prices were lower.
“Last year we had fewer applications, fewer eligible households, and had a lot more money,” Moffi said.
“Everything is working against us this year.”
Anyone seeking additional information on the Seasonal Fuel Assistance Program restrictions, should call 1-800-479-6151, or log on to www.helpforvt.org.
Officials stressed the seasonal program is not the only avenue through which to get fuel aid.
ACA/CVOEO manages a local “crisis fuel” program, available to people in emergency situations who live in households earning less than 150 percent of the federal poverty guideline ($2,651 per month for a family of four). Last winter, ACA/CVOEO provided a total of $62,613 in assistance to 647 individuals (including 277 children) through the crisis fuel program, according to Haury.
“Last year, I saw a lot of people I had never seen before, including the elderly and working families,” Haury said.
She believes she will see additional new faces this winter.
“We receive calls daily about (fuel assistance), from people who haven’t asked for help before,” Haury said.
Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) is also providing assistance as it can, with emergency financial aid and wood. In Vergennes, a coalition of area churches called the Economic Crisis Community Response Team (ECCRT) is putting together donations for fuel aid, as well as other household items for those in need.
Communities like Lincoln and Ripton have been organizing grassroots efforts to give people weatherization tips, as well as resources for fuel and food (see related story).
OTHER FUEL ASSISTANCE
In Bristol, fuel dealer Jackman’s Inc. is again this heating season offering its “Share Care” program, which helps meet the heating fuel needs of some customers who are struggling to pay their bills. Like last year, individuals and businesses can contribute money to Jackman’s Share Care fund.
The program has helped 63 local homes, to date, and Jackman’s has kicked in $1,000 to jump-start the fund this year.
Central Vermont Public Service Corp. (CVPS) and Green Mountain Power (GMP) are once again offering their Shareheat and Warmth programs, respectively, to provide heating help for families.
A handful of leading Vermont businesses has stepped forward in an effort to head off potential heating crises, boosting the CVPS Shareheat matching fund to a record $185,000, but CVPS has issued an urgent plea for donations to the crisis heating program.
“CVPS has pledged $100,000 to Shareheat this year, and through the Shareheat Business Partnership Program, we’ve now added $85,000 to that pool,” CVPS President Bob Young said in a recent press release. “The funds will be used to match customer contributions dollar for dollar and given to local community action agencies to help Vermonters in need this winter. The need will undoubtedly be tremendous.”
CVPS Shareheat is an emergency fuel fund of last resort. It is used primarily when low-income Vermonters are ineligible for other programs, have used up their eligibility, or never applied for assistance because they didn’t expect to need help.
Businesses that would like to join the Shareheat Business Partnership Program may call Ann Warrell at 747-5697.
Contributions to Shareheat should be mailed to: CVPS Shareheat Fund, 77 Grove St., Rutland, Vt. 05701. Checks should be made payable to the CVPS Shareheat Fund, and should be written out separately from CVPS bill payments.
“I think this will have to be a collaborative effort to extend everyone’s money,” Haury said.