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MAINE EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY
Knox County EMA Taking on a Different Kind of Emergency
March 7, 2008
In 2001, Mainers paid just $1.33 for a gallon of home heating oil. Today, they pay an average $3.37. The skyrocketing cost to heat a home is becoming a problem for families throughout Maine, but Knox County is fighting back. Knox County Emergency Management Director Ray Sisk, who is also a selectman in a county town, has first-hand knowledge of the problem. “In our town we budgeted about $500 each year for general assistance,” he said. “In the past, it would be an exception if we had two or three requests for assistance all year. Now, we’ve seen three to five times that.”
His town is not alone. That trend holds true throughout Knox County. In January Sisk organized a meeting of all the people and organizations involved in providing heating assistance for county residents, including general assistance representatives, non-profit and social organizations, churches and others. “At this meeting, most of the general assistance representatives said they had seen people applying for help much more often than they had in the past,” Sisk said. “We had communities that hadn’t had anyone ask for help in five or ten years. Now they had received two or three requests, just in January,” he said.
The people requesting help were also changing. “Now we’re seeing people on fixed incomes that had to make the choice between paying for heat and buying medication or food,” Sisk said. “In some cases they were choosing to pass on heat to stay properly medicated. We saw that as a real risk of losing a lot of vulnerable folks,” he said.
Sisk said that even middle income families were asking for assistance. “People were burning through $25 a day in heating oil and may have only budgeted money to cover $10 a day. That makes a huge impact,” he said.
At the January meeting, 28 people were there, representing 14 of the 18 communities in the county, including three of the four island communities, plus staff from the Salvation Army, Penquis, the American Red Cross, Meals on Wheels, Area Interfaith Outreach, churches and others. “That attendance told us a lot about the importance these folks were putting on these assistance programs,” Sisk said.
“We came to the conclusion that some people do not know how to access help,” Sisk said. Together the group developed a flyer to be distributed by mail – to all of the 17,500 households in the county. The county covered half the cost, and Penquis paid the other half. The flyer urged residents not to wait until they run out of oil to ask for help, and listed each town’s general assistance telephone number, and those of some non-profit organizations.
The committee went further, too, and received permission from the county commissioners to develop an emergency assistance heating oil contract that could be used by general assistance representatives and faith-based charities as another way to deal with the heating crisis.
The county’s regular bulk-buy contract covering municipalities and schools paid just $2.12 per gallon for heating oil based on 850,000 gallons of oil used annually. “Most of the general assistance folks and faith based charities were paying up to market price,” Sisk said. “If the price of oil is way up and your funds are fairly limited, you can only help a few people,” he said. “For every ten cents you get the cost of fuel down, that’s ultimately more people you can help.”
The county’s emergency assistance oil contract should be in place for next winter. Sisk hopes that it will not only offer communities and organizations a lower, negotiated price per gallon, but also provide more attractive delivery terms. “Oil companies, because of the realities of driving a truck from one side of the county to the other for unscheduled deliveries, were charging delivery fees,” Sisk said. “We heard of cases where the delivery charges for small quantity emergency deliveries equaled the value of the oil provided. It’s pretty easy to see that in some cases half of the assistance money was being used just to physically get the oil,” he said.
“Our contract is intended to allow more of these public assistance dollars to be used directly to heating homes,” Sisk said.
For more information or to request a home heating oil flyer, contact Knox County Emergency Management at 594-5155.
Contact:Knox County EMA
Last update: 07/20/10
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