With heating oil costs down more than $1 per gallon compared to last year, fuel assistance programs in Maine are seeing their dollars go further.

But for many people desperate for assistance, the lower price isn’t much of a respite, according to administrators of those programs and others who hear firsthand from those in need.

“People are still running out,” said the Rev. Ted Chaffee, who said he usually receives a couple of calls a week for some kind of assistance. “If you don’t have any money, it doesn’t matter if it’s down 2 cents, 20 cents or $2 and a half. It’s still out of reach.”

Chaffee, pastor at First Baptist Church of Gardiner for the last six years, said he hasn’t noticed a real difference in the number of people calling, but the church is limited in what it can provide to people, especially in terms of costlier items such as heating fuel. Usually the church has to team up with another church or group to help someone with fuel costs in a substantial way, he said.

NEED-BASED PROGRAM

The primary heating assistance program in the state, the federally funded Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, will provide about $16.5 million to help an expected 40,000 households pay for heating costs this winter, similar to the number of households served last year.

The program has seen a drop in the number of people applying for emergency assistance, from 1,552 households at this time last winter to 1,271 this winter, but administrators for the program don’t think the lower heating oil cost is necessarily the cause.

It is a need-based program with eligibility based on household income levels. Recipients must earn below 150 percent of the poverty level – $35,775 for a family of four, or below 170 percent of the poverty level for households in which someone is at risk for hypothermia, such as an elderly person or a child 2 years old or younger.

How much assistance households receive depends on their overall income, size, energy costs and other factors. This winter, the average heating assistance benefit has been about $700, according to Deborah Turcotte, spokeswoman for the Maine State Housing Authority, which administers the program. She said the agency expects the average benefit to be close to the typical $657 average by the end of the winter. Most recipients use heating oil, but the money can be sent to other heating source suppliers, Turcotte said.

She said unlike last year, the average benefit will be able to more than fill a tank of heating oil.

BUSY WITH REQUESTS

The average statewide cash price of No. 2 heating oil is down about 32 percent from last year amid a steep drop in the price of crude oil, from $115 a barrel in June to below $50 a barrel last week.

The $700 heating fuel benefit would allow a household to buy more than 280 gallons of heating oil, based on the average statewide average price of $2.56 per gallon calculated by the Governor’s Energy Office last week and the 7-cents-per-gallon discount with the program. Around the same time last year, when heating oil cost $3.76 per gallon, a $700 benefit would have been able to purchase only around 190 gallons of heating oil.

But despite this lower cost, the assistance from the federally funded program still might not be enough for some households, and the 10 community agencies that run it for different regions in the state are extremely busy with requests, Turcotte said.

“We hear of situations every year where people maybe have closed up their house besides one room, use extra blankets, wear more socks, because they can’t afford to pay for fuel,” Turcotte said. “This year, they have a little more relief.”

So far this heating season, the program has helped about 27,700 households, representing more than 56,000 people, she said.

The Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, based in Waterville, runs the program for Kennebec, Lincoln, Sagadahoc and Somerset counties.

Monica Grady, energy and housing services director at KVCAP, said the organization is helping the same number of people, but people receiving assistance in buying heating fuel are able to make their benefits go further.

MILDER DECEMBER

A lot of the people served are helped every year, Grady said. Many are on fixed incomes with not much available to pay out of pocket for heating fuel, electricity, and rent or a mortgage, Grady said.

She said higher temperatures this winter also may be providing some relief by allowing people’s heating oil to last longer.

The temperatures in January were similar to those of last year, but December was much milder than a year earlier, according to the National Weather Service’s preliminary monthly climate data for Portland. The monthly climate data for Augusta extends back only to February 2014.

December had an average high of 40.7 degrees and an average low of 27.6 degrees in Portland, compared to an average high of 32.1 degrees and an average low of 17.7 degrees in December 2013, according to the weather service.

KEEP ME WARM

Administrators of another heating assistance program, Keep ME Warm, also have found that a lot of people still need assistance despite the lower heating cost.

Keep ME Warm is administered by the United Way of Greater Portland, which disburses the money to the community action program and other United Way organizations.

Last year the program provided emergency heating assistance to 1,000 households, said Kristin Chase Duffy, spokeswoman for the United Way of Greater Portland.

Even though heating oil prices are falling, other costs, such as housing and groceries, are on the rise, Duffy said.

Households living in poverty spend an average of 44 percent of their weekly wages on heating fuel, compared to 23 percent for the average household, Duffy said.

Fuel companies in Kennebec County reported that although people can buy more heating oil for their money this year, most customers still try to conserve their heating uses to keep costs down.

Greg Chapman, an employee at Chapman Oil Co. in Gardiner, said the lower prices have helped people in the fuel assistance program receive more oil, but people across the board don’t appear to be using more oil than in previous years, despite the considerably lower price.