Prince George's and Montgomery officials, shaken by a two-thirds cut in federal energy assistance funds, say the actions means nearly 1,400 low-income families in the two counties are threatened with utility cut-offs.
Local administrators predict they will run out of energy aid in April, leaving about 900 poor residents in Prince George's and 500 in Montgomery without money to pay their bills.
County officials base their estimate on the number of low-income families expected to seek help in paying overdue bills in late April or early May, when utility companies usually tighten their credit policies with the arrival of warmer weather.
"If we don't get more money from the state, you are probably going to see 900 families living in houses this spring that don't have gas or electricity," said R. Hal Silvers, director of the Prince George's energy assistance program. "The county has been lobbying hard in Annapolis and Baltimore for more money, but it doesn't look too good right now."
Officials in both counties were astonished when the state Department of Human Resources, which oversees the statewide program and allocates federal funds, announced that more than 60 percent of the money the two jurisdictions were promised in December would go to the other counties.
Prince George's came up $1.3 million short of the $1.9 million it expected to get, and Montgomery had its allocation cut from $1 million to just over $320,000.
In contrast, Baltimore City received a substantially larger piece of the state pie under the reforms. It received 57 percent of the $20 million allotted the entire state of Maryland for energy assistance, with its share increasing from $8 million to $11 million.
The original allocations for the jurisdictions were based on estimates of low-income populations from the 1970 census, which showed Baltimore City had 60,427 residents living at or below the poverty level, Prince George's 14,025, and Montgomery County 7,907.
The new formula for allocating funds was based on how much each area spent weekly from mid-January through late February. That is where Montgomery and Prince George's lost out.
While Baltimore City was spending more than $1 million a week, Prince George's was paying out only $35,000 a week, and Montgomery County a little less than $16,000 a week. Even the most rural counties spent money at rates much greater than estimates of their low-income populations would suggest.
For example, according to the 1970 census, Allegany had a low-income population of 5,222 and Cecil ahd only 2,089. Allegany was spending more than $47,000 a week for energy assistance, however, and Cecil was spending $26,000.
As a result, areas such as these either kept their original allocations or received additional money under the new formula, while the two Washington suburban counties lost aid money.
"I just can't understand it," said Silvers. "We worked hard. We burned the midnight oil, too. We tried to get this money to the people who need it. Whey are we being cut and Baltimore City getting not only more money, but 57 percent of all the state total?"
State officials say they did not intend to stick rigidly to the original allocation estimates.
"You have to put the dollars where they count most," said Frank Welsh, executive director of the human resources department's Office of Community Services, which supervises the program. "Increase in fuel oil prices have had a hell of an impact on low-income people in other parts of the state. They've used the money more quickly and we have to get the money to the people who need it."
Families with incomes at or below 125 percent of the poverty level can get as much as $400 for fuel oil for the winter. The state recently lowered the maximum amount that can be given low-income families to help pay utility bills, from $250 to $150 annually, a cut that will be felt keenly in the Washington suburban counties.
According to Welsh, residents of other Maryland counties depend more on fuel oil for heat than do those of Montgomery and Prince George's, where electricity and gas heat many low-income homes.
"I was totally upset when they told me that we would lose all of that money," said James Farmer, executive director or the Montgomery County Community Action Agency, which oversees the local energy-assistance program. "I didn't cool off until the DHR chief explained how the whole state was short of money and that there were people in other counties that needed the money more."
"It's still going to be difficult," said Mary Bladen, the Montgomery agency's energy coordinator. "We'll probably be able to assist only half of the people we could have helped. Since we've already approaching our limit now, that could mean 500 people. If the people we're trying to help don't get the money they need, then you're going to see a lot of disconnections this spring."
"This whole thing really puzzles me. We sent a letter to every social-civic organization and everyone who has used the Department of Social Services in the county," said Silvers, in Prince George's County. "We set up nine branch offices across the country and we burned the midnight oil. What else can you do?"
Both Silvers and Bladen believe their offices will be flooded with applications for aid in April and May, when the utility companies usually tighten enforcement of their shut-off policies.
The utilities are reluctant to discontinue services during the winter, since it could endanger lives and is difficult to do under state public service commission guidelines. Spring, however, is another story.
"Our people (low-income families) usually wait until the last minute to come in," said Bladen. "They come in in the spring because they know the utility companies mean business. It's then that they either pay the full amount owed, make arrangements to make deferred payments, or get their power cut off."
"There have been only two cut-offs in suburban Maryland this heating season," said a spokeswoman for Washington Gas Light. "When it gets warm, though, we encourage people who have trouble paying their bills to use some kind of a deferred-payment plan."
Families who cannot afford to make such payments will have their utilities shut off, the spokeswoman added.
Local officials are upset over the new ceiling on assistance for utility bills, which went into effect March 1. State officials said they cut the maximum from $250 to $150 so that more households could be helped.
"I don't think it makes any sense," said Silvers. "Our average bill is nearly $225 a family. We will be able to help more people, but the people with the biggest bills won't be helped at all."
Silvers also points out that inequities in the federal energy-assistance program abound in the Washington metropolitan area. Households in Virginia can get as much as $400. Those in the District can get $700, and have the option of using the money to pay for either heating oil or utilities, as needed.
"It's hard to believe, but within a stone's throw of my office (in Hyattsville) a low-income family can get $700 for an energy bill, but on my side of the invisible line they can get only $150," he commented.
"And over here in Maryland, that family probably won't be able to get any money after April."