Need for energy assistance outpacing resources

By Amanda Pinto and Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
Jan. 16, 2008

With heating oil prices continuing their skyward trend, it’s not surprising that many families are struggling to keep their homes warm this winter.

What may defy expectations is where some of those families call home.

Increasing numbers of middle-income residents in Shoreline towns, where the median family income tops $70,000, are seeking energy assistance. Social service officials across the region said they have seen more people apply for help with fuel bills than in years past.

And in some towns, the jump in applicants has made it difficult for departments to keep up with the level of need.

Westbrook saw so many families apply for help this year that it neared a “crisis situation,” Social Services Director Sharon Lessard said.

“I couldn’t get (funds),” Lessard said. “I would call Hartford and I couldn’t get through to them.”

Lessard added that she will likely process applications for 150 families this year, twice the number of families that requested energy assistance five years ago.

“This is probably the worst year ever because of the price of oil,” she said. “It’s just increasing. Our middle-class families are having problems between their lights and oil.”

Shoreline towns including Branford, Guilford, Madison and Westbrook participate in the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program and Contingency Heating Assistance Program, the state’s distribution system for federal energy dollars. Community Renewal Team, a community action agency based in Hartford, administers the funding for those towns as well as most of Hartford and Middlesex counties.

Nancy Pappas, the spokeswoman for CRT, said families earning up to 60 percent of the state median income can qualify for the state programs. That means that a family of four earning $55,323 could receive some assistance.

The state offers benefits of $300 to $675 for oil deliveries, depending on income, and CRT also negotiates payment programs for electricity and natural gas heating where utility companies will match customers’ payments dollar for dollar.

People in the state energy assistance programs pay a negotiated per-gallon rate that is generally lower than what regular customers pay, but the current cost is still more than $3 a gallon this year, Pappas said. She added that many more families than usual have already used up their benefits and the emergency funding programs CRT offers.

“It’s not that cold a winter — they’re not burning through their fuel faster, they’re burning through their money faster,” she said.

Between January 2007 and this month, the average price of a gallon of heating oil in Middlesex County — where Westbrook is located — increased from $2.48 to $3.40, according to the state Office of Policy and Management. In New Haven County, a gallon of heating oil that cost $2.30 a year ago now costs $3.34.

Wendy Larson, social services coordinator in Madison, has seen family and single applications for help with energy bills double this year to about 70 people, which doesn’t include senior citizens and people with disabilities. About 50 seniors received assistance this year, according to the town’s senior services coordinator.

Madison is one of the wealthiest towns in Greater New Haven, with the U.S. Census showing a median family income of $101,000 in 2000. Madison uses the Community Renewal Team program to offer residents energy assistance.

Neighboring Guilford is also one of the area’s more affluent towns, but Social Services Director Tammy DeFrancesco said there is still a significant number of people needing help with heating bills. Among the most vulnerable residents, she said, are the elderly or disabled and single parents.

“With expenses as high as they are, people who have made it by the skin of their teeth (and) who are living paycheck to paycheck, this year are finding that they can’t do it like they did before,” she said. “People who squeezed by before and said, ‘I don’t need to apply and I don’t want to,’ are now saying, ‘You know, now I have to.’ ”

DeFrancesco said she has processed about 190 applications for the state energy assistance programs this year. That’s almost a 20 percent increase over the same time last year. Out of those applications, 44 of the families had never before applied for the program. DeFrancesco added that she has another 25 appointments scheduled in the next three weeks.

In addition to the higher numbers of families in need this year, some local towns are having trouble finding oil companies that participate in the energy assistance programs.

Rising oil costs have not fueled a higher payday for oil companies, many of whom have found the assistance program cost prohibitive and opted not to participate in it. The compensation oil companies are afforded for participating in the program is not enough to make it worthwhile, said David Foster, owner of Westbrook-based Wilcox Oil, which does not participate in the program.

With costs rising, small businesses like his feel the pinch more than “large monopolies” that serve bigger areas, Foster said. But he added that they might not feel the community connection he does.

“We end up taking care of people and doing favors,” he said. “We don’t want them to go without heat. … They are friends and neighbors.”

Westbrook oil companies have “banded together” and unsubscribed to the program, Lessard said, forcing energy assistance customers to sometimes wait to get their oil from towns as far away as Mystic.

Other relatively affluent towns, like Orange, benefit from their proximity to communities with more customers in need of energy assistance.

Dennis Marsh, elderly outreach worker in Orange, has had many more calls for assistance this year, 46, with about half of those people eligible for the program. While Orange-based oil companies also do not participate in the program, he’s able to get deliveries from New Haven, West Haven and North Haven fairly quickly.

But the federal and state programs also may not provide enough assistance to meet all of a family’s needs, local social service directors said. In a recent letter to President Bush, Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the Coalition of Northeastern Governors urged the release of available contingency funding from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Connecticut needs about $14.8 million in additional federal funding to make ends meet, Rell said.

In Westbrook, a recent meeting with Community Renewal Team representatives has expedited some applications and gotten assistance for some families, but about half are still waiting, she said.

“We haven’t even really hit a cold spot yet and we have a lot of elderly who are on fixed incomes,” Lessard said. “I worry about them.”

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