PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Although the price of fuel is not as volatile as last year and Aroostook County is not seeing record cold or snowfall amounts, officials said Wednesday that the need for heating assistance still exists.

While officials at the Aroostook County Action Program continue to process applications for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, Sen. Susan Collins announced in a press release Wednesday that the Department of Health and Human Services had agreed to release $490 million from its LIHEAP contingency fund, of which Maine will receive about $4.8 million.

The heating assistance program provides financial assistance to low-income and program-eligible households to help meet winter energy costs. LIHEAP helps to pay energy bills for low-income families and the elderly, as well as fund energy crisis intervention programs, low-cost residential weatherization and other energy-related home repairs.

The $4.8 million Maine is expected to receive will help low-income and elderly families who are struggling to afford home heating oil.

Collins noted that 4.5 million low-income families, including about 48,000 households in Maine, rely on LIHEAP each year to assist with the costs of heating their homes.

An additional $100 million remains in the federal contingency fund.

Susan Deschene, senior manager for community services at ACAP, said that while she is not certain The County is seeing an increase in need for heating assistance, her organization in any case is processing more LIHEAP applications this year.

“This season, we have processed 1,000 more applications than we had at this time last year,” she said Wednesday. “We have processed more than 6,000 applications so far.”

Deschene said the average benefit is more than $908.

Along with applications for LIHEAP, Deschene said ACAP also has received 258 emergency fuel assistance applications. The applications are submitted by people who are out or almost out of fuel and don’t have enough money to buy more.

Deschene said there is always a need for fuel assistance, especially in rural Aroostook County, where prices for fuel and oil tend to be higher.

“We did get a bit more funding for LIHEAP this year,” Deschene acknowledged. “We anticipated that we would receive more applications for LIHEAP during this winter season because of the economy. We will have a better handle on how great the need was when we analyze our final data in April.”

Last month, President Barack Obama signed an omnibus appropriations bill that includes $5.1 billion for LIHEAP for fiscal year 2010, the highest funding level in the program’s history. Of that, Maine already has received $13 million in base LIHEAP funding for this winter.

Collins said she was pleased to see money from the contingency fund released.

“It is encouraging news that the Obama Administration has agreed to our request to release these funds,” she said in the release. “I hear time and again how difficult it is for Mainers to afford heating their homes. This program is more important than ever to providing relief to struggling families during these tough economic times.”