Last fall, when Maryland officials sat down to divvy up the state's $17 million share of a $1.3 billion federal energy assistance grant program, Montgomery and Prince George's counties were big winners. Montgomery County got a $1 million grant, while Prince George's County brought home $1.9 million.
The Energy Crisis Assistance Program, which began in December, was designed to help low-income residents pay their fuel oil and utility bills. But one month after the program began, the two counties are having trouble giving away their funds.
By the end of last week, the Maryland suburban counties had allocated only about a 1/20th of their total grants. Montgomery County had used only $49,000, while Prince George's County had committed only $110,000. The deadline for spending all the money is June 30.
"The unfortunate thing about the whole business is that there are a lot of people out there who really need this money," said R. Hal Silvers, director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness, which coordinates the Prince George's County assistance program.
Silvers notes that his office has sent out mailings to most of the major civic and fraternal organizations in the county, and to nearly 10,000 citizens who in the past have come for help to the Department of Social Services and the Department of Aging.
"By now, I think we should have spent half a million dollars," Silvers observed. "It's a real challenge, reaching the energy indigents. And to be quite frank, it gets terribly frustrating at times."
Some Montgomery County officials worry that they may not be able to get all of the money to energy indigents by the June deadline.
"I'd hope that the state would extend the deadline to Sept. 30 because it's going to be really difficult getting all of the money to the people who need it by June 30," said Fred Froelicher, coordinator of special projects for the county's community programs division.
Last year, Montgomery County went back to the state for an extra $74,000 and spent a total of $164,000. In contract, Prince George's County -- which had a larger initial funding share -- had to send back 25 percent of a $100,000 grant.
"The big problem last year was that the Department of Aging (which handled the program) was undermanned," Silver noted. "Then, I think everybody knows how the federal government is -- waiting until the last minute, then sending the localities through a crash program."
Last year's program did not get underway until April, and the counties had only five and a half weeks in which to distribute the funds. This winter, though, the counties will have seven months.
The eligibility requirements for the program have changed little since last year. In order to qualify, county residents must meet stringent income guidelines and give concrete evidence that they are suffering from an energy-related crisis.
That evidence could take the form of an overdue bill or a discontinuance notice. Under the income guidelines, a family of four is allowed a maximum annual income of $8,375. Applicants are eligible for as much as $250 in the year.
Officials in both counties agree that up to now, a great many of their clients have sought help because fuel oil distributors have been unwilling to deliver fuel oil to lower-income residents without payment in full.
"Even when we tell the companies that we have already processed and approved a client's application, we find firms unwilling to deliver oil until the individual involved has been approved by their credit departments," said Mary Bladen, manager of the Montgomery County energy crisis assistance program.
Despite the difficulty in reaching their clientele and persuading local oil distibutors to deliver fuel, the two counties have together helped more than 900 families or individuals pay fuel bills though the federal program.
"I have to pay my fuel bill," said one elderly North Brentwood resident who got a $100 grant for oil this week. "Without the money that I got from this program, my husband and I would have just had to cut back on something else like food. And that's awfully hard to do."