EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

New Hampshire

January 13, 2008

N.H. looks to Congress for more fuel aid; Many people already have exhausted help

SALEM - Money from a federal home heating fuel assistance program could arrive any day now, but it won't be enough to fill the need, according to state and local experts.

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.

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