Cold unrelenting but fuel assistance money running low

GILFORD — As New Hampshire's winter grinds on and on, the local agency responsible for distributing federal fuel assistance has reached the bottom of its coffers.

According to Judy Scothorne, the program director of the Belknap-Merrimack Community Assistance Program division of energy, the $3.7 million Low-income Home Energy Assistance Program (LiHeap) is exhausted.

Scothorne said the total award to Belknap-Merrimack CAP was $4.4 million, however the state has only approved $3.7 million. The money, she said, has helped between 5,000 and 6,000 families supplement their fuel budgets this winter.

In addition, Citizen's Energy or "Joe-4 Oil" gave each county 33 slots that each provided a 100 gallons for people who qualified.

"That's just a gift," she said. "It's wonderful."

Although the cost of home heating oil has only risen about 20 cents to about $3.79 per gallon, she said the frigid temperatures coupled with a growing number of working poor people in central New Hampshire has really taken it toll.

Fuel assistance is determined by a matrix based in part on income and and the number of people in the household. A family of four that earns a total of $47,100 can qualify for the minimum subsidy of $150 a season she said. The average benefit is between $650 and $750 dollars and the maximum benefit is $1,100.

"What I see is people who don't make enough money to heat their homes in New Hampshire," Scothorne said.

"We've got a lot of working folks," she said. "They're the people who wait on you in the store and the people who are (chambermaids.)"

Scothorne said the soaring prices for kerosine and propane have made it harder for people who live in mobile homes to heat their homes this winter.

Gilford Finance Director Geoff Ruggles supervises the town's welfare office and said he has seen about eight people in the past two weeks who have exhausted their federal fuel assistance money but who still need fuel. He said many of the people the town helps are on fixed income or earn low incomes and many of them live in the town's mobile home parks.

"We give assistance regularly to families with two incomes," he said.

Both said that in many cases there isn't enough fuel assistance to meet the minimum delivery requirement of 100 to 150 gallons. At $3.99 per gallon, the March 10 average rate posted by the state Department of Energy, a family must come up with $598.50 for a single delivery of 150 gallons of oil.

Scothorne said there is one company that delivers smaller amounts of fuel but the cost of delivery is reflected in the price and they don't deliver kerosine.

Ruggles said a fair number of Gilford residents who have come in for assistance are elderly who often heat with kerosine, which the state said costs $4.39 per gallon.

Although demand is growing, Ruggles said they town budged $16,000 for heating assistance in 2014. In 2013, about $14,000 was budgeted for heating assistance and the town spent about $22,000, some of which came in November when the weather turned cold but the fuel assistance program was not yet available.

He also said the federal Housing and Urban Development standards for fuel oil use have been exceeded because of the lengthy and cold winter so people who would normally have enough gallons are running low.

"Many people are right on the edge," he said. "As to elderly people, well you can only ask them to turn down the thermostat so far."

Ruggles said that people have taken to calling the town when they are completely out of kerosine and said the town has had to tell them to buy diesel fuel to get by until the paperwork in the town's welfare office is completed.

"We have to use some discretion," he said.