With the winter heating season virtually over, local jurisdictions have distributed less than one-third of the money the federal government gave them to help poor families pay their fuel bills.
Officials here say the warmer-that-usual winter served to limit the amounts that were needed. But Maryland and Virginia regulations, which have been tougher than most states, also restricted the amounts that could be given to families.
This year, the four-year-old federal energy crisis assistance program was greatly expanded by Congress -- to $1.6 billion nationwide -- to help blunt the impact of rising energy costs on the poor. Some of that money was sent automatically to aged, blind and disabled poor persons who receive Supplemental Security income payments. The rest was given to the states to distribute to local jurisdictions.
Of the $9.4 million was to be allocated to local governments here this year, as of last week only $2.9 million had been distributed to pay fuel oil and utility bills for 11,321 families, according to local officials.
Last year, 3,368 local families were helped, with only $592,693 distributed here.
But even more money might have been disbursed this year if local governments had not been limited in what they could give needy families.
Under the federal program, families with annual incomes at or near the poverty level ($8,375 for a family of four) can qualify for assistance. The money is paid directly to oil, gas and electric companies or other fuel suppliers rather than to the families. At first, the federal government limited payments to $400 per family, but in December it said the states could set their own limits.
The District, which has more poor families than any other local jurisdiction, has given families up to $700 if they have bills exceeding $1,000. Consequently, it has spent about $1.8 million -- or 41 percent -- of its $4.3 million allocation.
But Maryland and Virginia have had tougher restrictions and that cut down on their fuel aid business.
In Maryland, Gov. Harry R. Hughes in late February ordered that the amount a family could receive to pay utility bills be reduced from $250 to $150. But he left unchanged the $400 limit on payments for fuel oil and kerosene.
Montgomery and Prince George's county officials have complained loudly that these restrictions will hurt their poor residents since most heat with gas, not fuel oil.
Mary Bladen, director of the Montgomery program, added, "some people we deal with have electric homes and their bills are over $800."
"a woman came in with a gas bill for $249 and a cutoff notice and an electric bill for $9," said Hal Silvers, director of the fuel aid program in Prince George's. "all I could pay was $150. She said she would try to find the rest of the money somewhere."
Because other parts of Maryland have been using up their money more quickly, state officials recently reduced the amount of money they had said they would make available to those two counties.
As of last week, Prince George's County had spent $475,310 of its original $1.9 million allocation, while Montgomery County had used up only $238,828 of its $1 million pot. State officials have reduced those allocations to about one-third the original amount.
County officials complained that the cutbacks may inhibit their ability to help poor families who are just now receiving cutoff notices from the Potomac Electric Power Company (Pepco) and the Washington Gas Light Co.
The utilities generally have refrained from cutting off service to customers in the winter months. But this month, gas company officials said they expect to mail out several thousand cutoff notices to customers who, for the most part, are two months behind on their bills. Pepco would not say how many of its customers will get cutoff notices.
Up until Feb. 8, Virginia had restricted payments of $200 per family; it increased that to $400 when state officials saw they would have too much money left over -- at this point, they have 44 percent of their money left.
The state also has had tougher rules for how much a family could earn to qualify for the program and what kinds of bills it would pay.
Alexandria, consequently, has used up only 16 percent of its $697,483 allocation and Arlington, only about 20 percent of its $467,352.
Fairfax County, meanwhile, has spent only $235,665 of the $1 million it received. "we're just not getting the people," said Edward Amundson, director of the program. Fairfax created its own $70,000 county program for people who earned too much to qualify for the state program; 75 percent of this fund has been distributed.
In addition to the distribution regulations, the warmer winter cut down on some of the demand.
"this winter has been 12 percent warmer than normal," said Hal Silvers of Prince George's County. "given the high cost of energy, this statistic is good news for the community as a whole, but it does cut back on our assistance business," he wrote in a recent report.
Nationwide, the spending levels are also lower than had been expected.
"i'm surprised we still have some funds left,' said Edward Freel, of the federal Community Services Administration, which operates the program with the Health, Education and Welfare Department.
At the end of January, the most current figures available, the states had spent only 50 percent of the federal grants they had received. "the warmer winter has helped the situation and has stretched the funds through the winter," Freel said.