Editorial Distorts State Agencies’ Plan to Address Heating Aid Crisis

January 4, 2012

In response to the Portland Press Herald Dec. 29 editorial (“State in danger of making heating problem worse”), we think there is room for further clarification.

It’s true that “the White House and Congress put people in danger by cutting low-income heating assistance.” Potential loss of Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funding is a frustrating, perennial problem compounded by the uncertainty of waiting for the next action at the federal level.

Rather than sit back and wait, Governor LePage recognized that the situation required both short-term action to protect the most vulnerable this winter and a longer term approach to mitigate the all-to-familiar crisis condition that has occurred each year with LIHEAP funding.

To that end, the Governor asked MaineHousing, which manages the LIHEAP program, and Efficiency Maine, which manages energy efficiency and alternative energy programs, to work together with his staff to develop options to address the short-term need this winter, and prepare a contingency plan if energy prices spike or supply is constrained.

In the plan we’ve advanced, MaineHousing continues weatherization programs while focusing on the immediate need to fill oil tanks this winter, and Efficiency Maine focuses on fast-track weatherization, prioritizing those most in need. That’s quite different from “gutting” conservation to “burn oil wastefully,” as you stated in your editorial.

As Governor LePage has said, “winter is now; we have to solve the problem now. There are available funds in (our) organizations that can help us with this problem.”

Here’s what we came up with together.

MaineHousing is shifting $4.3 million in the low income heating program to provide additional direct fuel assistance benefits to Maine seniors and families this winter. This year’s benefits now range from $1,334 for the poorest recipients to $116 for households at 170% of the federal poverty level.

An added bonus is that in the last two years MaineHousing, the community action agencies (CAAs), and private contractors have weatherized 4,830 low-income dwellings, thus reducing their heating loads by 1.2 million gallons of fuel and saving $4 million that now can be used to meet the increasing needs of other low income homes.

Efficiency Maine is redirecting funds allocated for low income households ($5 million) towards weatherizing up to 700 low-income electrically heated households this winter. Both short- and long-term solutions continue to be analyzed, and reducing heating assistance needs can be achieved through home weatherization efforts that ultimately lead to lasting savings.

Efficiency Maine is planning to use $1 million from a federal grant to provide low-cost, high efficiency alternative heating systems, such as wood-pellet stoves, to LIHEAP-eligible households this heating season, helping to significantly reduce those families’ heating costs and doing so in a quick manner.

Additionally, Efficiency Maine is donating 250,000 energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs that will be distributed to more than 40,000 homes per month by local food banks. These bulbs have the potential to save $800,000 per year on lighting bills beginning this winter.

This year, community action agencies are assisting just as many people – if not more – with all of their LIHEAP needs, from scheduling appointments to ensuring oil deliveries, and are doing so with less money to cover the costs of program delivery.

The increase in the price of heating fuel has decreased the buying power of LIHEAP funding and there is no way Maine can make up the entire loss. We can, however, move to lessen the impacts.

In the coming weeks you will hear more about the “Keep Me Warm” campaign as the Governor, bipartisan elected leaders, and the business community make a concerted effort to raise private funds to aid heating assistance needs. The campaign is a collaborative effort of United Ways of Maine and Maine’s Community Action Agencies with the power to generate much needed additional resources to an otherwise strained heating assistance program.

Together, through a variety of efforts, we can address this crisis. MaineHousing, Efficiency Maine and Governor LePage have demonstrated the teamwork that must occur. Maine’s neediest families expect and deserve no less when it comes to keeping them warm this winter.

Ken Fletcher, director, Governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security
Dale McCormick, director, Maine State Housing Authority
Michael Stoddard, director, Efficiency Maine Trust