Energy aid increased for low-income families

Governor, Constellation officials gather at a retiree's home to announce a multimillion-dollar expansion.


With home heating bills expected to climb as much as 50 percent this winter, Earl Harris faced some tough choices.

The retired school bus driver's Social Security income is about $700 a month, about half of which is consumed by utility costs in a cold month for his home in Baltimore's Central Park Heights. That leaves little for other essentials such as food and medical care.

With more families struggling with rising energy costs as a result of tight supplies, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Constellation Energy Group officials gathered in front of Harris' home yesterday to announce a multimillion-dollar expansion of energy assistance programs for low-income families.

For Harris and his family, the programs would provide heating assistance grants of $1,310 for the year, in addition to the free weatherization upgrades recently installed in his 1920s-era rowhouse.

"They gave me a new cellar door, weatherstripped all of the doors and windows that needed it and shot insulation all up in the attic through the crawl space," Harris said.

With unusually warm weather providing an odd backdrop for the event, Ehrlich announced that the state would provide nearly $13 million in additional heating assistance funds and ease eligibility requirements to make the programs available to an estimated 60,000 additional households.

Constellation Energy said it has dedicated $20 million to heating assistance programs, some of which date to 2003 and will be distributed to charities and community programs over the next several years.

Energy experts are predicting continued tight supplies as a result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which curtailed production in the Gulf of Mexico. The soaring cost of natural gas and tight oil supplies have rippled through the economy in the form of higher prices for consumers and slimmer profits for energy-dependent industries.

"I know it's the first week in November and it's a beautiful day, but the cold weather is most assuredly coming," Ehrlich said, warning of difficult times ahead for low-income home owners.

Maryland Democrats called on the governor to pressure Congress to roll back cuts in federal energy assistance. They say Republicans in Congress have proposed cuts that would reduce Maryland's share of heating assistance funds by $4.2 million. Ehrlich said yesterday that he recently went to Washington to lobby for increased funds.

"Governor Ehrlich needs to turn up the heat on his party's leaders in Washington who are proposing crippling cuts to low-income energy assistance, leaving nearly 10,000 Marylanders out in the cold this winter," said a statement from the Maryland Democratic Party.

The Maryland Energy Assistance Program is financed with $29 million in federal heating assistance money. An additional $27 million comes from a surcharge on electric bills that was part of 1999 legislation deregulating utilities in Maryland.

The state's Project Heat Up plan will expand eligibility for the programs to residents who make up to 175 percent of the federal poverty level, a 16.6 percent increase over the current 150 percent limit.

Most of the nearly $13 million in additional funds announced yesterday will be used to subsidize heating bills for the newly eligible applicants, who must apply for the assistance between Jan. 15 and March 31. The rest - about $400,000 - will go toward a state weatherization program that helps homeowners improve energy efficiency.

Last year, the programs served 83,000 households. More than 345,000 households could be eligible for the assistance this year, the governor said, although state officials say many who qualify don't apply.

In addition, Constellation Energy said it will provide $3 million in each of the next two years to the Baltimore Community Foundation, which provides energy assistance to families. That will build on the $6 million the company provided to the foundation in 2003, $4 million of which remains unspent.

The company also plans to make a $2 million cash contribution to the Fuel Fund of Maryland, a private nonprofit that provides emergency energy assistance for families in need. An additional $6 million will be spread out over a number of years to assistance programs depending on market conditions and customer need, company officials said.

On top of that, the company said, it would increase the matching credits it provides to the Fuel Fund to $2 million from $1 million in the coming year.

"We recognize that even in normal years, it's tough for many residents within this state to actually pay their electric and their gas bills," said Mayo A. Shattuck III, chairman, president and chief executive of Constellation Energy.

Harris, the Central Park Heights resident, said he never could have afforded to weatherize his home without assistance. He can already feel the difference.

"The last few weeks it's been chilly off and on," he said. "Normally, when it's chilly, when I walk up my stairs I can feel a draft up at the top. I haven't felt anything" since the improvements."

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