Grant will help some pay for heat



Maryland has received a $7.5 million grant from the Administration for Children and Families to help low-income families heat their homes this winter, but state officials say the grant was expected and are calling for more federal funding to offset expected higher heating bills because of the steep spike in energy costs.

The money, part of $1.3 billion sent to the states through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, is a portion of the regular first-quarter allocation from the federal program, said Steve Barbour, a spokesman for the federal Administration for Children and Families.

The federal program helps cover the costs of heating and cooling for more than 4.5 million low-income households in the country.

The allocation is not in response to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s call for an additional $1.2 billion for the federal program, said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor. Ehrlich stressed that the hurricane season is placing a strain on the nation's energy prices.

The Maryland Energy Assistance Program, which offers discounts on home utility costs, is facing a projected $51.5 million shortfall, a Washington nonpartisan think tank said last week in a report that highlighted shortfalls in the program nationwide.

Maryland will need nearly $84 million in federal fuel assistance - more than twice the $32.1 million it had anticipated - to cover the rise in home heating costs projected by the federal government, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported earlier this month.

Ralph Markus, deputy director of the state's Office of Home Energy Programs, said that if the federal funding is not increased, the number of low-income families the state will be able to help will be put in jeopardy.

Last year, about 83,000 Maryland families received assistance through the state program, and Markus said that amount could grow 5 percent or 10 percent.

"A fair amount of people right around [the income guidelines] will not apply for program because they feel they can make it on their own," he said.

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