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With sky-high fuel prices, more Mainers are applying for heating assistance

A heating oil delivery truck travels down a road in South Portland, Maine, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
A heating oil delivery truck travels down a road in South Portland, Maine, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018.

With colder temperatures on the way, high fuel costs are pushing more Mainers to apply for heating assistance.

Community action agencies have taken in a little more than 18,000 applications for the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) since mid-July, according to MaineHousing.

That's almost triple the number of applications — about 6,500 — received by this time last year, though community action agencies were allowed to open the program up about five weeks earlier this year.

Appointments to apply for heating assistance began after Labor Day at Downeast Community Partners. Staff handle about 130 applications a week, and appointments are already booked into February, said Jenny Reese-Pullen, the senior manager for energy services.

"A lot of panic," she said of her clients. "It seems like this year people are assuming that the farmer's almanac is going to be right; we're going to have a very early and long winter. Not to mention the price of fuel, how it has gone up, has really scared a lot of our citizens."

According to the latest data from the Governor's Energy Office, the average price of heating oil in Maine is $4.44, compared with a $2.69 average this time last year.

About 60% of Maine households rely on fuel oil as their primary heating source, compared with 4% nationally. HEAP covers propane, natural gas, wood pellets and any other fuel that's used as a primary heating source, but the majority of Maine's HEAP funding goes toward oil, a MaineHousing spokesman said.

With fuel prices nearly $2 dollars higher today than last year, heating assistance funds won't nearly stretch as far.

The average MaineHousing heating assistance benefit paid for about a tank-and-a-half of fuel oil last year. But the agency estimates that — without more federal or state funding — average benefits will only cover half a tank.

Jason Parent, CEO of the Aroostook County Action Program, said he's bracing for what he believes will be a sizeable increase in the number of Mainers calling for emergency fuel.

"As people have really exhausted their ability to afford to heat their home, I really see that kicking in a lot earlier this year, unfortunately," he said.

Nationwide, households are expected to pay, on average, 17.2% more to heat their homes this winter, according to a recent estimate from the National Energy Assistance Directors Association.

The association, along with Gov. Janet Mills and members of Maine's federal delegation, have all written to U.S. congressional leaders asking that they set aside more funding for heating assistance.

"We're heading into this winter season in a very different position than we were heading into last winter season, with a greater need and less of an understanding of how that need might be met," Parent said.

ACAP has nearly doubled the number of staff members working on heating assistance this season. And it jumped on the opportunity from MaineHousing to open the application window earlier, beginning the intake process five weeks earlier in mid-July, as compared to late August last year.

Nearly 2,500 people have applied during the first 10 weeks this week, as compared to 618 during the first five weeks of last year, Parent said. Many of those applicants are seniors or families with young children, people most vulnerable to cold temperatures, he added.