High demand depletes Howard Co. Fuel Fund

November 02, 1992|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff Writer

Temperatures are dropping and the Howard County Fuel Fund is empty.

The fund, administered by the non-profit human services organization Community Action Council, provides once-a-year emergency grants to help people pay their utility bills.

For the first time in its 12-year history, a record number of requests for help have depleted the fund, which depends on private donations for most of its grant money.

"There's been an extraordinary demand," said Ray Gosselin, Community Action Council's director of programs.

"We're doing about double what we did last year. That's what's grabbing all the money."

The fund operates throughout the year but demand is heaviest when the heat gets turned on.

Last year, the fund spent about $36,000 providing $100 grants to 360 households, Mr. Gosselin said. From July to September of this year, about 100 households have received emergency grants.

No grants were awarded in October after the money dried up completely.

On Nov. 20, the fuel fund will get a much-needed infusion of cash from the proceeds of the Fuel Fund of Central Maryland's biggest fund-raiser.

The Howard County fund will receive a check for about $4,000 raised during the Paddle For People race that took place Oct. 3 at Baltimore's Inner Harbor, said Ellen Lockard, executive director of the Fuel Fund of Central Maryland.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s Green Envelope campaign provides another major source of money for the fund. The envelopes are placed in BG&E customer bills during the month of December to make fund contributions.

Mr. Gosselin hopes that all donations, large and small, will add up to between $25,000 to $30,000.

Despite an empty bank account since August, the fuel fund has managed to stay alive through a BG&E program that attempts to prevent utility turnoffs.

For example, if a BG&E customer receives a turnoff notice, the utility will pay one-third of the bill if the customer can raise the remainder through private sources, such as churches and charities.

Even with the BG&E program, the shortage of fuel fund money severely limits the number of people that can be helped.

"We're almost at a standstill," Mr. Gosselin said.

And with cold weather approaching, Community Action Council has been flooded with applications for help with utility bills.

Mr. Gosselin attributes the increased demand to widespread layoffs brought about by a weak economy, a situation that has created "the new poor."

He's seen out-of-work architects, engineers and computer programmers apply for emergency fuel grants.

"These people who were very comfortable suddenly find themselves on unemployment. They exhaust their benefits and here they come," Mr. Gosselin said.

"There's a presumption that Howard County is wealthy as the dickens but poverty exists everywhere," he said.

In addition to the Howard County Fuel Fund, the Maryland Energy Assistance Program provides grants during the winter months for utility expenses.

Frequently, families facing the prospect of no heat or electricity for failure to pay utility bills must rely on contributions from many sources in addition to the Fuel Fund and MEAP.

Churches, the Salvation Army, the Department of Social Services and community groups also provide emergency assistance on a regular basis.

But in some cases, utility bills climb so high there's little that can be done to help, Mr. Gosselin said.

Recently, someone with a $2,028 BG&E bill called on Community Action for help.

Sometimes, Mr. Gosselin explained, utilities try to help by letting payments slide. But there's always a limit.

"All we can do is give them $100 and some leads to try and raise the money," he said.

To contribute to the Howard County Fuel Fund, call Community Action Council at 313-7240.

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