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Fuel dealer helps ease the pinch for needy customers

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January 21, 2008

By CYRUS LEVESQUE

BRISTOL — Fuel prices have risen precipitously in the last year and a half, pinching the budgets of many Vermonters. But a few residents of the Bristol area, if they look very carefully at their bills in the coming months, may find the math a little confusing. They might not see a record of a delivery even though they distinctly remember one in recent days, or a fuel tank might last the usual amount of time even though the bill shows it was only filled halfway.

Customers of Jackman’s Inc., though, needn’t waste too much time trying to figure it out. The Bristol fuel dealer recently began its “Share Care” program to help its customers in need get through the winter. Jackman’s Inc. is quietly paying parts of the bills of its customers who need the help the most.

“We were concerned if people could afford the fuel this year,” said Jackman’s bookkeeper Sharon Bushey.

Share Care began around the end of November when the company started a fund with $800 and solicited contributions from local individuals and businesses. Donations from individuals and businesses in the area have raised that sum to $2,120 so far, according to Bushey, most of which came during the holiday season. Jackman’s Inc., which is unrelated to Jackman Fuels, is still seeking more donations.

“We’re going to continue right through the winter,” said Peter Jackman, co-owner of Jackman’s Inc.

Fuel prices have been rising continually, and are now at $3.79 a gallon for kerosene and $3.37 a gallon for fuel oil, according to Bushey. In November of 2006 a gallon of fuel oil was going for $2.56.

The Share Care program, while new, is not unique. The Patch Chit Program, named for the late Rutland fuel dealer David Patch, has helped low-income Vermonters around the state since the 1980s. The Vermont Fuel Dealers Association raises funds from contributors, usually in the form of 100-gallon “chits,” which are distributed by the Department of Social Welfare’s Emergency Fuel Program.

The federal government runs the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which also provides heating assistance. Federal officials on Wednesday announced that they had released $3,858,991 from LIHEAP to help Vermonters pay their heating bills, a little less than 1 percent of the $450 million to be distributed nationally. The money is distributed by the Vermont Department of Children and Families.

Although the Share Care program does not have written criteria for who gets the price break, Bushey said that Jackman’s Inc. is better positioned to know which of its customers need help, and how much. The company has 4,424 customers spread out among Bristol, Hinesburg, Lincoln, Middlebury, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro, some of whom have come to Jackman’s Inc. in person to ask for a little extra time to pay a bill for one reason or another.

“We know people at a more personal level than the fuel assistance agency,” Bushey said.

Jackman’s Inc. has disbursed funds to two individuals so far, out of a list of about 115 candidates who might receive aid. Bushey said that some of the candidates are just over the minimum income level to qualify for LIHEAP heating assistance funds, while others might normally be able to afford their bill but are having unusual financial difficulty these days, due to sudden treatment for an illness, for instance.

For the most part, the recipients of donations won’t be told about it. The company will just edit the bills of customers in the greatest need to reduce or remove some costs.

“They don’t know that we’re giving it to them,” Bushey said.

While there is a cost for Jackman’s, in some cases dropping off extra fuel to a customer in need actually makes the company’s operations run more efficiently. Sometimes, for example, a customer needs a relatively small amount of oil. If no one else in the neighborhood needs fuel at the time, the deliverer might top off the customer or another one in the area for free.

The program is still in the early stages, but Jackman said it has been well received judging by the donations community members have made. He expects to distributed the rest of the fund by the end of this heating season.

“We didn’t know how it would go, but it’s gone pretty well,” Jackman said. “People say it’s a very good idea.”

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