November 5, 2013

Maine faces another drop in heating assistance funds

But the state could still get more, depending on how federal budget negotiations shake out.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Maine is set to receive $33.8 million in federal heating assistance funds for the 2013-14 winter season – about 3 percent less than last season.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Monday announced that it is making available $2.93 billion nationally in state block grants for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP.

That $2.93 billion represents slightly less than 90 percent of the $3.47 billion that had been budgeted for LIHEAP under the continuing resolution which passed on Oct. 16, ending a 16-day government shutdown. The continuing resolution, however, is good only until Jan. 15, after which automatic sequestration cuts would kick in if a long-term budget deal is not reached. That’s why the government released the lower amount.

States could still get more depending on how budget negotiations proceed.

“LIHEAP is an important lifeline for Mainers struggling to make ends meet and stay warm during the winter months,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.

The 2nd District Democrat is among many in Congress who want to see LIHEAP funding restored to 2010 levels, or about $5.1 billion. “While I have pushed to fully fund the LIHEAP program, the funding announced today provides our state the certainty it needs to plan for the upcoming heating season,” he said.

Added Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District: “We’ve heard from so many families and seniors who are struggling to put heating oil in the tank and aren’t sure how they are going to get through the winter. The money being released to Maine is good news but the truth is that the LIHEAP funding passed by Congress isn’t enough. The economy is still tough and oil prices are still high.”

Funding for the program has dropped significantly in recent years. In 2010-11, Maine received $56.5 million, a number inflated by extra funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In 2011-12, it fell to $38.6 million. Last season, the amount was cut to $34.9 million because of sequestration.

MaineHousing manages the LIHEAP program in Maine, and local community action programs process applications. Last week, MaineHousing spokeswoman Deborah Turcotte said there had been some uncertainty about when the funds would be released, but she encouraged eligible Mainers to apply.

Eligibility is determined by income and household size. A family of two must earn less than $23,265 a year to qualify, and a family of four must earn less than $35,325. For households with elderly residents, people with disabilities or children younger than 2, the income thresholds are slightly higher.

LIHEAP is not meant to cover all heating costs but rather to act as a supplement. The average cost per year to heat a 1,500-square-foot home with oil is more than $3,000, according to recent data provided by the Governor’s Office of Energy Independence. For propane, the average annual cost is more than $4,000.

Last year, more than 44,000 households in Maine received LIHEAP assistance. The average benefit was $629.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

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