A campaign to raise money to help low-income Mainers keep warm this winter is kicking off Monday.

The United Ways of Maine and the Maine Community Action Agencies say the Keep ME Warm Heating Assistance Program campaign is more important than ever, due to cuts in federal fuel assistance this year.

“There is less heating assistance and expenses are rising,” said Alice Kornhauser, United Way of Greater Portland spokeswoman.

Federal funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, in Maine fell from $54 million in 2011 to $38.5 million this year. Last year changes in federal guidelines made more than 4,000 households ineligible for the federal program.

That has pushed the denial rate for requests for help to 18 percent, double the historic rate, according to the Keep ME Warm campaign.

Maine State Housing Authority estimates the average heating assistance benefit has dropped from $802 in 2011 to $556 this winter. About 54,000 Maine households received federal assistance last year.

Home heating oil prices have tripled since 2001. Heating oil prices now average $3.69 a gallon statewide, according to the Governor’s Energy Office.

That means it costs $922.50 to fill a standard 250-gallon tank and even more in the eastern part of the state where home heating oil prices reach as high as $3.90 a gallon.

In Maine, about 75 percent of all households are heated by oil, higher than any other state.

The campaign usually raises about $300,000, said Kornhauser, which doesn’t begin to approach the $15.5 million cut in federal assistance.

Kornhauser said with funding cuts to public assistance programs across the state, low-income Mainers are having to choose between heating their homes or paying for medications and other basic necessities.

“The pool of assistance is shrinking across the board. That gap has to be made up,” said Kornhauser.

Founded in 2008, Keep ME Warm distributes emergency heating help either directly or through local organizations including faith-based groups and nonprofit agencies.

Community Action Agencies receive 65 percent of the money raised by the campaign, United Ways receive 25 percent and 2-1-1- Maine, which connects people with health and human services, receives 10 percent.

Community Action programs use the money to help households that may not be eligible for federal, state or local fuel help programs. United Ways and 2-1-1- Maine use the money to support organizations and agencies that can help households which need home heating fuel help.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]