BELFAST, Maine — It appears that it’s stacking up to be a long, cold winter for those whose income fails to keep pace with the cost of oil.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins described the impending situation as a “crisis,” and pledged to expend every effort to double the federal government’s commitment to providing heating and weatherization assistance to those in need.
The government spent about $2.5 billion on the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program last year and Collins is pushing to increase that figure to $5.1 billion. The Republican senator hopes to do the same with weatherization, which received $250 million last year. She and other senators are asking for $500 million this year.
“I believe you will see a substantial increase for both of these programs,” Collins told assistance providers at Waldo Community Action Partners on Thursday. “Our state is facing a crisis for this winter.”
Last year Waldo County received $1.9 million in heating assistance funds and used it to help 2,649 clients. Waldo CAP heating director Kitty Doughty said that with the price of oil averaging $1 per gallon higher than last year, those in need would suffer dearly if funding were reduced.
“We’re hoping for at least as much as we got last year,” Doughty said. “Hopefully, with the prices the way they are looking this year, we’ll get even more.”
Collins told the providers they were faced with a major challenge and that it would take a group effort to get through the winter. Along with more money for heating assistance, Collins said the community must band together to help weatherize homes across the state. She said upgrading 2,000 to 3,000 homes would reduce en-ergy consumption by about 30 percent.
She proposed that community agencies, churches and service clubs put together teams of skilled volunteers that could help with home weatherization projects this fall. She said she intended to push to make the federal AmeriCorps disaster team available to assist Maine residents with weatherization.
“We need to go winterize homes this fall; that’s my goal and you’re key players,” she said. “This is the equivalent for our state of a catastrophic natural disaster.”
Collins said she was concerned that people could suffer from exposure and die this winter as they turn to us-ing unsafe wood-burning stoves and chimneys to fight off the cold. She also worried about deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by the use of unvented heaters.
Larry Horvath, the agency’s housing coordinator, said carbon monoxide monitors should be included in any weatherization kits that are distributed to people. Horvath said money for heat and weatherization projects should have been in the pipeline this spring.
“I feel that every day is a day lost toward accomplishing this goal,” he said. “All summer we should have been doing this work.”
Collins agreed and said she attempted to no avail to move her Senate colleagues to act swiftly. She said the problem was that many cold weather states use natural gas as a heating source and were not as dependent on oil as Maine and northern New England. She said 80 percent of Maine homes are heated with oil. With people facing heating bills of $3,000 to $5,000 this winter, “It’s a crisis not just for the low income but for the middle class,” she said.