Just after Christmas, President Bush and Congress agreed on funding levels for a home heating fuel assistance program - one that will give New Hampshire $18.7 million this winter. That's more than the $18.3 million the state received last winter, but much less than the $24 million New Hampshire got the winter before that.
Beyond that, the average amount of heating assistance going to an individual family - usually no more than $975 for an entire winter - just doesn't cut it anymore, several assistance workers said.
"It used to be that would cover a good portion of their heating costs. This year, forget it," said Sharon Brody, director of fuel assistance for Rockingham Community Action.
Bob Loranger, who runs a separate fuel assistance program in Salem, said residents are already coming to him and saying they've used up all the federal assistance they're eligible for.
"I have four, five, six files on my desk, from people who have used their fuel assistance budgets (already)," Loranger said.
The trouble is, Salem's program was designed as a stopgap measure during particularly long winters. The program, which gave out $11,500 in assistance last year, isn't equipped to handle a huge demand, he said.
Salem is required by state law to help those who are eligible for help - even if the town hasn't budgeted for the demand, he said. Officials simply have to find the money elsewhere, he said.
Meanwhile, state fuel assistance officials are still holding out hope that Congress could approve extra money for low-income New Hampshire residents to heat their homes, although it isn't clear if that money will come.
"We would need additional funding in order to give those households the same buying power (they've been given in years past)," said Celeste Lovett, the fuel assistance program manager for the state.
Some fuel assistance comes to residents through a patchwork of local charities, town welfare departments and business donations. But most residents who need help paying for fuel get it from LIHEAP, the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
Congress approves money for individual states. In New Hampshire, that money is distributed to county-level relief agencies, like Rockingham Community Action.
Last year, some 4,000 Rockingham County residents received fuel assistance, Brody said. This year, she expects a 7 percent to 10 percent increase.
And, as more residents apply for aid, the price of home heating oil rises.
Right now, the average cost of home heating oil is $3.39 per gallon, according to the state Office of Energy and Planning. A year ago, it was $2.39, the state agency reported. That's a 42 percent increase.
According to Loranger, many families are paying between $200 and $500 a month for home heating oil, and large numbers of people will probably have spent their federal assistance by the end of January.
Worse still, Brody said, many people who can't pay to heat their homes are turned away from the federal program because they make too much money.
In order to qualify, a family of four must earn $3,141 or less a month, she said. A single person would have to earn $1,552 or less a month, she said.
Residents who don't qualify are directed to small, private assistance programs that sometimes can help and sometimes can't, Brody said.
Meanwhile, Gov. John Lynch's spokesman said he is looking to the federal government to release "contingency funds," or extra money for the LIHEAP fuel program.
"Right now, we're focused on working with the federal government and hopefully they'll quickly release those contingency funds, as they have in the past," said Colin Manning, Lynch's spokesman.
Two winters ago, the state received contingency money. Last winter, it did not, according to Lovett, of the state agency.
How can I save on heating oil?
* Save 10 percent on heating oil bills by turning down the thermostat 10 degrees for eight hours a day
* Move furniture and draperies away from radiators so heat can circulate
* Weatherstrip windows and doors