Meriden fuel assistance programs strained by rising energy costs, increasing demand for services

Sunday, January 30, 2011
Courtesy: 
Meriden Record Journal (print edition)
Meriden, CT

With rising energy costs and record snowfall this month, area towns are working to satisfy an influx or energy assistance applicants who are already running out of heating fuel.

Larry Elliot, Community Services Director at New Opportunities of Greater Meriden, said there has been a 35 percent increase in applicants in the last two years, which he attributes to rising energy costs and the economy. "That's a definite," Elliot said.

New Opportunities (of Greater Meriden) received 6,881 applications for heating aid last year. Elliot said the agency has received more than 5,800 applications this heating season - and they're still coming in.

With New Opportunities paying about $3.02 per gallon of oil - about 30 cents more than last winter - the average person is getting fewer than 200 gallons for an award of $580. A tank holds about 275 gallons.

And future prices aren't looking good, either. Just last month, former Shell executive John Hofmeirster said Americans could be paying $5 per gallon of gasoline by 2012.

He also predicted that between 2018 and 2020, supply-and-demand disparities would cause gas stations in several regions of the country to start running out of fuel.

For aid organizations that pay for energy from bigger vendors, these prices are out of their range.

While it has historically been the lower income brackets that have sought energy assistance, Elliot recognizes that middle-class families have increasingly been looking for aid from grants and organizations such as his.

"We've had about a 32 percent increase over the last three years. Most of them have been your middle or lower class who have lost jobs and are on unemployment," he said.

Wallingford has seen the impact on its Connecticut Energy Assistance program, which is designed for people who have exhausted their heating aid but need emergency help paying their bills.

"People are just starting to run out of their CEAP grant now," said Marion Zambry, a social worker for Wallingford Youth and Social services.

The program started in December and she said that her office has received "lots of calls in the first month."

"People are calling earlier because the issue is the price of oil," Zambory said. A tank generally lasts until February or March, but this winter, families are running out quicker than usual.

Patricia Wrice, executive director of Operation Fuel, said it is going to be hard to meet its $1 million fundraising goal to help all families in need. The private, nonprofit,  statewide program provide energy assistance to low-income families that don't qualify for state aid. The state funding stream has run dry, and the organization relies on private donors.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy applauded the recent release of almost $36.06 million in federal funded winter heating assistance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, bringing the state's total to about $95.75 million for fiscal year 2010-11. More than 92,000 Connecticut residents had applied for aid under the state's energy assistance program through mid-January.

In Southington, Community Services Director Janet Mellon said the town received about 450 applications as of last week. "People have been running out, and I think we're going to start seeing more of that in a month or two," she said.

State law prohibits utilities from being shut off from November 1 to April 30. Even so, those seeking help often feel the pressure.

"We also need individuals who serve with passion and care, and relate to clients as they come for help," Elliot said. "It's crucial that we're very understanding in what type of economy we're in right now." 

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