Low-income Howard County residents can get emergency help with their fuel bills through the Community Action Council, a private, nonprofit group in Columbia.
The council coordinates fuel assistance throughout the county through its Fuel Fund program and through the Maryland Energy Assistance Program, a federally funded program.
In addition, the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. established a counseling center in the council's office in September to answer questions about fuel and energy conservation and to help clients avoid getting into debt because of fuel bills.
"It's like one-stop shopping," said Dorothy Moore, director of the council, which last year helped more than 1,400 households through the Fuel Fund and energy assistance programs. "And it has worked really well."
Last year, the council's emergency fuel assistance funding exceeded $290,000, about $8,000 above the previous year.
The council's Fuel Fund program is funded by donations from the community and a one-third matching grant from BG&E. Funds in this program are limited to a maximum of $100 a year per household.
The Maryland Energy Assistance Program, a federally funded program, has no cap on the amount a person can receive.
Those who qualify can apply for money from both assistance programs. Eligibility for either program is based on the number of residents and gross monthly income of a household. The standards are as follows:
* One-person household maximum monthly income: $871
* Two-person household maximum monthly income: $1,179
* Three-person household maximum monthly income: $1,486
* Four-person household maximum monthly income: $1,794
* Five-person household maximum monthly income: $2,101
* Six-person household maximum monthly income: $2,409
In addition to monetary assistance, the council is working to educate its clients about fuel conservation.
Before September, the council had only two full-time workers and one part-time worker handling the fuel cases.
"When it came to counseling, it just wouldn't happen," Ms. Moore said.
Now that BG&E has established a satellite center in the council's office, fuel assistance applicants get immediate tips on how to conserve fuel and energy.
"Once that application is taken, then that person is taken directly to the counselor," Ms. Moore said.
The counselor, Doris Duren, a senior customer representative for BG&E, sits in the council's office, so case workers know exactly what fuel assistance the applicant needs.
"If they need information on a customer's account, they can get it immediately," Ms. Duren said.
In addition to counseling clients on fuel and energy conservation, Ms. Duren also answers billing and account questions for walk-in clients between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Last February, BG&E closed its office in the Columbia Mall. That made it difficult for customers to have direct interviews with a customer service representative.
"Customers used to have to call the main office . . . or go to Laurel," Ms. Duren said.
"Now they can come here. It's not even necessary to have an appointment," she said.
Further information about fuel assistance from the Fuel Fund or the Maryland Energy Assistance Program is available by calling the Community Action Council at 313-7240.