Randy Tidd, pictured on Wednesday, Oct. 10 outside his home in Hodgdon, worries about escalating fuel prices and says getting fuel assistance from the state is a big help. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

With fuel prices poised to rise in the double digits this winter and the often-cited but pseudoscientific Old Farmer’s Almanac predicting a “season of shivers,” Maine fuel assistance programs are expecting high demand.

Randy Tidd of Hodgdon is one Mainer concerned about energy prices, especially now that he is getting a new oil furnace to replace his pellet stove with state help. He also has applied for a heating assistance program that will help pay part of his fuel costs.

The 63-year-old and his wife have lived for 30 years in a two-story home, much of the time without proper heat registers, and now have a teenager living with them as well. Last year, there was no heat in the cellar, so the floors got cold and the pipes froze.

“It’s cold every winter, but I’m suffering like everybody else to get money for fuel, and prices are terrible,” Tidd said.

The Maine programs that administer federal heating aid are seeing increased demand this year for fuel assistance amid higher fuel prices. The federal winter fuels outlook estimates that U.S. households could spend anywhere from 30 percent to 59 percent more for heating oil than last winter, depending on temperatures. In Maine, 3 in 5 households use fuel oil as their primary heat source, higher than any other state, with administrators worried as cold weather sets in.

“I’m concerned for individuals who are not connected to the program,” Jason Parent, executive director and CEO of the Aroostook County Action Program, one of Maine’s 10 community action agencies, said.

One plus this year is that existing heat assistance recipients got a bonus in September with money left over from last year, giving them a jump on this year’s heating bill as the days turn colder.

It meant three tons of pellets for Tidd’s aging stove and an average of $800 extra per person receiving assistance in Aroostook County, about the same amount they received as their normal program payment last year.

Mainers must apply for fuel assistance programs each year, a process that usually begins in August. The money goes to vendors, who start getting paid in late November. But many applicants run out of fuel help from the previous year by the ensuing October, leaving a gap before more money is put into their vendor’s account.

“For the first time in as long as I can remember, individuals who are part of the program do have a benefit on their fuel vendor account going into the season,” Parent said.

In a typical year without money left over, about half of the emergency funds the program has for fuel are used to bridge the assistance gap in October, Parent said. The program also raises money for emergencies through a telethon that raised $70,000 last year, as well as donations and other events. Many of the program recipients are not on budget plans, but instead fill their tanks month to month.

The community action agencies served 33,000 households in Maine last year, when the state was awarded $40 million in federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funds. This year the state will get at least $35 million in funding.

While the leftover funds from last year are helping people like Tidd who were in the program last year, there’s still plenty of demand from new and returning applicants whose job status may have changed during the pandemic and who are worried about the rising prices. Heating assistance, which does not fully cover bills, is based on household income, the number of people living in the home and consumption patterns.

With some parents working fewer hours or being laid off, or students at home because of COVID-19 outbreaks at school, household composition could have changed during the pandemic, Michele Prince, chief operating officer at the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, said.

“The rising energy prices are also raising the anxiety of folks,” Prince said. “We’re getting a lot of new applicants, many of whom are in emergency situations.”

Prince and other program managers said many Mainers who qualify for the heat assistance do not apply, citing reticence to take money from others in need, detailed applications and embarrassment to get help. Prince said there is money available for those who need it.

And Tidd encouraged people not to be too bashful to reach out.

“You can’t go wrong by just calling them and asking for help,” he said. “You shouldn’t be too proud.”