The sudden chill of winter winds has caught many low-income Montgomery families with empty oil tanks and county government without funds to help them.
Although federal funds due from Congress by Nov. 1 are expected to ease the nationwide strain on low-income families caught in the cold by soaring fuel prices, county officials say they face a crisis now.
"I wouldn't say people are freezing, but they're cold," said Mary Bladen, of the county Community Action Program. "I've had people call whose electricity's been turned off of their gas disconnected, or they have no oil and the company will only deliver C.O.D."
Bladen supervises Community Action's fuel crisis intervention program. Last year that program used federal funds to pay fuel bills for about 800 low-income families in Montgomery County. The program staff members expect that figure to double this year as soaring utility costs place more strain on citizens with fixed incomes and those who support large families.
Allocations to the county will also increase, officials say. Last year, the program received $164,000 for fuel crisis intervention. Although $132,000 is due to the county after Nov. 1, other bills pending in Congress are expected to bring the total to $260,000, said program director Fred Frolicher.
That, Frolicher says, should be enough to help Montgomery County's low-income families make it through the winter.
"Right now, until we get funds, there's very little we can do," Frolicher said.
Once the funds flow to the states and trickle down to the counties, Montgomery residents who meet federal poverty guidelines will be eligible for up to $250 in aid to pay their fuel bills.
Although the federal guidelines allow families to receive up to $400, state officials have decided to hold the one-time grant to $250 -- last year's ceiling -- so there will be more to go around.
"It's a tough problem. We can't spend all the money on just a few cases," said Frank W. Welsh, executive director of the Maryland Office of Community Services, the state agency distributing the federal aid.
In the meantime, Community Action worker Bladen says she tries to help people work out temporary solutions.
These interim measures include deferred or low-payment plans. In one instance, Bladen said, she arranged for an elderly Damascus man to buy oil in five-gallon cans. "The utility companies we've worked with are very cooperative," she said.
Although Bladen says she's receiving more calls now than a year ago, she claims the onslaught of cold weather has not drastically increased the numbers. Bladen says she averages about 20 calls a day.
"I'm really surprised that we haven't gotten more calls than we have. But I have a feeling it's going to get much worse," she said.