As cold weather sets in and bills mount, heating assistance efforts gain steam

Individuals, non-profit organizations and elected officials are racing to help Midcoast residents struggling to cover heating bills this winter.

“It’s direct and personal right now,” Michael Strange, a retired Brunswick business owner, said of the cold weather. “I think (for) a lot of people… you heat up or eat; You don’t do both.”

Strange hopes to create a non-profit lumber bank in Brunswick, which would provide low-income residents with free firewood to heat their homes.

He was inspired by groundhogsa group of volunteers in the Boothbay region who have been collecting, splitting and drying firewood for their neighbors in need for 15 years.

Like similar programs in other parts of the state, Woodchucks has grown in recent years as energy prices have risen. Last year, the group collected more than 55 acres of donated wood (nearly $20,000 worth, according to the Governor’s Office of Energy) and served about 35 area homes.

“We don’t want anyone to get cold feet,” Woodchuck frontman Billy Smith said. “We see too much of that in this world.”

Heating oil prices in Maine averaged $4.53 per gallon as of December 19, according to the Governor’s Office of Energy. While this figure represents a drop from record prices of more than $5.70 in May and November, it is still 44% higher than the average price of heating oil a year ago and 144% higher than the December 2020 price.

The life-threatening consequences of high heating costs have prompted advocates to pressure lawmakers to help them.

“Fears about navigating and, in some cases, surviving this year’s heating season are part of almost every interaction we have,” read testimony Bath Chief Housing Executive Deb Keller presented to the Legislature before a public hearing last week. “We find homeowners who are confident that many seniors will freeze to death in their homes this winter, homeowners who have already run out of fuel and haven’t known where to turn, homeowners terrified that fuel costs cannot add to income, homeowners who are already receiving heating assistance but find they can’t cover the rest of the costs this year, and homeowners who have never accessed any kind of public benefit before but know they now need to find some kind of support on their own. to do during this heating season.”

Last week, LD 3, an emergency heat bill that would provide $450 checks for qualified taxpayers, $50 million for heat programs, and $21 million for emergency housing and shelter programs, passed committee in Augusta. , establishing its probable approval when the Legislature returns to session. in January.

Separate legislation proposed by Brunswick Town Councilor and Maine Rep. Dan Ankeles would, if passed, allow towns to seek reimbursement from the state for funds spent providing additional heating and housing assistance to residents. who need it this winter.

“People shouldn’t be punished for doing the morally right thing,” Ankeles said. “They are often the first line/last resort for people.

City of Brunswick staff is currently working to form a partnership with local groups to fund extended hours at The Gathering Place, offering a warm space to all who need itreported Economic Development Director Sally Costello at last week’s City Council meeting.

However, due to liability and insurance issues, Strange said, the city has been unable to offer him a space for his proposed wooden bench. Until he secures a hard surface in an accessible location, like the city’s former Naval Air Base, he can’t establish his nonprofit.

After not being able to find a place for a month, Strange is giving up hope that he can get the program up and running in time to help the residents this winter. However, he promised that he is just warming up.

“I won’t give up,” said Strange, who seeks advice from people or companies that want to partner with him. “It would be easy enough to walk away, but I don’t think it’s right.”

Strange can be contacted at 751-7196.

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