State needs more fuel assistance funds, report says

Energy cost increase may hurt some residents



Because of the steep spike in energy costs, Maryland is going to need nearly $84 million in federal fuel assistance - more than twice the amount it had anticipated - to help low-income residents heat their homes this winter, according to a report released by a nonpartisan think tank yesterday.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, based in Washington, reported that the poor nationwide will be hit with skyrocketing heating bills unless the federal government increases its funding to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program by about 150 percent - to $5.2 billion from $2.2 billion.

Money from the federal program is dispersed throughout the country and helps cover the costs of heating and cooling bills for about 5 million low-income households, according to the report, which estimated the aid shortfall state by state.

The Maryland Energy Assistance Program, which offers discounts on home utility costs, is expected to receive $32.1 million from the federal government. The program will need $51.5 million more to cover rising costs based on the Department of Energy's projection that home heating prices will average 47.5 percent more this winter than last winter, according to the report.

Last year, about 83,000 Maryland families received assistance through the state program, and the state expects to see that number grow this winter. The Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. recently estimated that customers will pay 25 percent to 33 percent more for natural gas this winter than last year.

Henry Fawell, spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said the governor is "deeply committed" to ensuring that low-income households receive the assistance they need for heating bills.

The governor sent a letter to President Bush on Sept. 23 requesting an additional $1.2 billion for the federal program, stressing that the hurricane season is placing a great strain on the nation's energy prices, Fawell said.

"He is mindful of the fact that this funding will be absolutely critical as winter approaches," Fawell said. "And he's working to get every penny possible."

Should that funding not come through or not cover the projected rising costs, Fawell said, "we'll cross that bridge when we get to it."

Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, said the increase in energy prices is a combination of energy usage around the world, recent hurricanes like Katrina and Rita that affected energy resources in the Gulf Coast and the ongoing war in Iraq.

"These are federal problems, and they require a federal actions," he said.

Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the think tank and co-author of the report, "Out in the Cold," said those who benefit from the federal program generally can't afford to cut back on any more of their living costs to pay rising heat prices.

"It's the standard question: Heat or eat?" Kogan said. "Of course, you could not pay your rent or not buy your prescription medications. These are not good options.

"To say you won't take your Caribbean cruise is a great option, but that's not the population we're talking about."

Sun reporter Tyrone Richardson contributed to this article.

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