WINDHAM – Cold temperatures, steep fuel prices, and continuing economic hardship have caused unusually high numbers of Windham residents to seek heating fuel assistance this winter, according to local officials and volunteers.

As of mid-March, Windham Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a nonprofit fuel assistance group, had spent a record $33,000 providing assistance to 94 households. According to Norma Rogers, the group’s treasurer, the previous record was set in 2013, when Neighbors Helping Neighbors spent $31,066 on 91 cases.

“I think it’s been a real tough winter for one thing, and we’ve had a lot of cold weather,” Rogers said. “I think the economy has a lot to do with it. I think it’s just everything combined has made it tough for people.”

In December and January, Rene Daniel, Windham’s general assistance administrator, received 66 requests for heating assistance. Daniel approved eight of the applicants for financial assistance. The rest were referred to either Neighbors Helping Neighbors or the state’s Low Income Heating Assistance Program and Department of Health and Human Services.

“I have never seen more requests for fuel,” said Daniel, who has worked for the town since 2011. “This winter is so, so bad. This cold needs to break soon.”

Daniel said he has fielded requests for heating oil, kerosene, coal and wood chips.

According to Windham’s December social services report, the town’s ability to provide assistance was partially hampered by fuel scarcity.

“The increased demand left fuel dealers with a shortage of oil, thereby hampering the town’s ability to find fuel in emergency situations,” the report reads. “The reduction in (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits and most recently the elimination of extended unemployment benefits also played a role in the increased number of calls for assistance.”

In response to the high demand this year, some Windham councilors are asking whether the town’s general assistance program has left needy residents out in the cold.

“This has been one of the worst years for heating costs in a very long time,” said Councilor Donna Chapman. “I feel like we might have hurt some people because we just have such stringent guidelines now.”

Every year, the Town Council passes an ordinance codifying state guidelines that determine eligibility for the general assistance program, which provides money for rent, electricity, housing, water, prescription drugs and fuel. According to town officials, those standards have tightened in recent years.

If monthly state audits determine that Windham’s general assistance administrator is following the guidelines, the town receives a 50-percent rebate on the assistance expenditures.

Annual general assistance expenditures have dropped dramatically in the past three years. In fiscal year 2010, expenditures hit a high-water mark of $501,109. They dipped slightly to $441,651 the following year, according to Brian Wolcott, the town’s finance director.

In fiscal year 2012, general assistance expenditures were $53,372, while in fiscal year 2013, the town spent $30,272 on general assistance, Wolcott said. For fiscal year 2014, the town had spent $27,697 in general assistance as of March 10.

Town councilors and officials said that the dramatic drop occurred after Daniel was hired as general assistance administrator in 2011. Before Daniel, People’s Regional Opportunity Program, now known as the Opportunity Alliance, administered the program.

“They were just giving money to everybody,” Council Chairman Tommy Gleason said. “They want to help everybody. It’s a social services network …That’s why it was way, way out of whack.”

Chapman, who is critical of PROP’s management of the program, said she is concerned that the town has become stingy.

“How have we gone from one extreme to another extreme?” Chapman said. “What the heck happened the last two years, or three years?”

According to the town’s 2012 annual report, the decrease can be attributed to “diligent oversight of the program, administration by a certified general assistance administrator, strict adherence to the ordinance, and better education regarding the program, and furnishing food, and non-food assistance to the Windham Food Pantry.”

According to Assistant Town Manager Phyllis Moss, who oversees the program, Daniel is merely following the guidelines approved by the council.

“There is no leeway in interpretation, and he does follow the ordinance to the T,” Moss said. “Where there is leeway for his ability to help groups of people attain the assistance they need is not necessarily through a financial means. In other words, he refers them to the resources. His job is to help people help themselves.”

“He makes the best use of all resources available to him,” Moss added. “That could mean federal or state or local or regional, to make it happen for these people.”

Councilor Bob Muir asked at a March 11 meeting whether Daniel had any leeway in determining general assistance eligibility.

“I don’t know if there’s any interpretation in those state things that the administrator can follow, or if it’s strictly by the book,” Muir said. “I’m just concerned that we want to make sure that everybody who needs it, gets it. It’s not a budget consideration.”

Town Manager Tony Plante said that the town is required to provide general assistance if an applicant meets the state eligibility standards.

“Well, I can tell you is it is not a budget consideration,” Plante said.

“I hope it isn’t,” Muir responded.

At the meeting, state Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Cumberland, a founding member of Windham Neighbors Helping Neighbors, said he was surprised that more town fuel assistance had not been distributed in response to high demand.

“I was a little surprised to hear this discussion,” Plummer said, “We have seen dramatic increases this winter in people needing fuel assistance. I was a little surprised to hear that general assistance might not be up as well.”

Bill Diamond, president of Neighbors Helping Neighbors, said that the group has received an increased number of referrals from the town.

“We are picking up the slack,” Diamond said.

Plante said that if it were not for Neighbors Helping Neighbors, more Windham residents would have to brave the winter with less fuel.

“I think to the degree that both state and federal government have pulled back from some of their assistance programs some of the need that was being met through state and federal programs is now showing up at the local level,” Plante said. “With the changes to GA we’re not able to provide as much assistance as we might have in the past, and that’s going to fall either to community groups like Neighbors Helping Neighbors or the need will simply go unmet.”

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