Friday, December 19–Worcester Households Seeking Energy Bill Assistance

BERLIN – A staggering economy coupled with the arrival of winter and uncertainties in electric and fuel bills has created a perfect storm of sorts for those struggling to keep up with energy costs in Worcester County and across the state, but some relief arrived last week with the announcement of a $110 million boost in federal funding for Maryland’s energy assistance programs.

Governor Martin O’Malley, along with Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, last week announced the state has received $110 million in federal funding earmarked to help those in the state struggling to pay their energy bills this winter. The $110 million represents a significant increase over the $35 million in federal funding Maryland’s energy assistance programs received last year and could go a long way in helping those who need it the most this winter.

With many facing job layoffs and furloughs along with increases in the costs of just about everything in this sluggish economy, more and more people are seeking help with electric bills and other energy bills this winter across the state and in the local area. According to Worcester Youth and Family Counseling Services Director Teresa Fields, the number of families seeking energy assistance in the local area thus far this winter has gone up dramatically and includes those who probably haven’t been forced to seek assistance in the past.

“The biggest need for our program is energy assistance,” said Fields this week. “We’ve seen about five times as many requests for assistance this year compared to last, or about a 500-percent increase, and I’m not just talking about low-income families. We’re seeing people seeking assistance from low- to middle-income families and some higher-income families.”

Fields said the slumping economy combined with high electric bills, particularly in the Berlin area, have people from all walks of life looking for some energy assistance this year.

“We’ve seen people whose businesses have taken a big hit coming in looking for some help with rising energy bills,” she said. “Let’s face it. It’s been a rough six months.”

The $110 million in federal energy assistance funding received by the state last week is expected to provide help to as many as 102,400 families across Maryland this winter including many right here in Worcester County. The state’s energy assistance programs have seen the demand for services steadily increase in recent year including a spike this year due to rising costs and the slumping economy.

For example, a total of 89,108 households received assistance in 2006 and 93,175 households were served last year. This year, the number of households seeking assistance has already climbed to 102,472 with most of the winter yet to come. O’Malley said this week the injection of federal funding for energy assistance could not have come at a better time.

“These are historically difficult times and Maryland is not immune from the national economic downturn,” he said. “Maryland’s working families are the cornerstone of our economy, but are also the most significantly impacted during an economic downturn. Maryland’s energy assistance programs are designed to ensure that eligible families are not left out in the cold simply due to an inability to afford their energy bills.”

The Maryland Department of Human Resources administers the state’s energy assistance programs to help low-income families pay their heating bills, minimize heating crises and make energy costs more affordable. Federal funding like the $110 million forwarded to the state last week are funneled down from the state’s Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to local programs on the front lines of the battle. In Worcester, most of the funding is passed through the Shore Up program, which provides energy assistance to families and individuals in need in the three lower shore counties.

Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski was instrumental in securing the $110 million in federal funding for Maryland by urging her colleagues to make energy assistance in priority in the federal checkbook.

“Families in Maryland and across the country need our help,” she said. “They are feeling stretched and strained by high energy costs and a sluggish economy and they need a government that is on their side. I know how important these funds are, and I know that no family should have to choose between heating their home and feeding their family this winter.”

Senator Ben Cardin was also on the front lines of the effort to secure the federal funding for Maryland. Cardin said this week the funds will be used to help all Marylanders in need of a leg up with their energy bills this winter.

“Many Maryland families will need help this winter to pay their energy bills and the federal government is providing the state with $110 million in energy assistance funding,” he said. “Approximately 100,000 Maryland families qualify for this assistance and it’s important they understand that this money is there to help them through the cold winter months.”