Fuel fund broke as cold weather arrives

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Bridgton’s emergency fuel fund has gone dry already, and the cold weather is only getting started.

The Bridgton Community Center Fuel Collaborative had just over $7,000 going into the season, thanks in no small part to the Bridgton Board of Selectmen’s decision to give the fund $5,000 from Community Development Block Grant Funds. But all of the money has been used up since Dec. 1, in helping 24 families with one-time assistance of 100 gallons of oil, K-1 or propane.

More and more, people are treating the fund as a line of first defense instead of last resort, said Carmen Lone, executive director of the Bridgton Community Center. That’s because, for several years now, the federal LIHEAP Program doesn’t provide heating assistance to its clients until around February or even March — often three or four months after the application has been submitted.

“The LIHEAP process is not in line with the heating season,” Lone said. “And year after year it gets worse.” The result is that working families and those on fixed incomes or disability literally can’t afford to wait for the LIHEAP funds to come through. Most of the 24 families served to date are repeating clients who usually wait until later in the season to ask for help from the emergency fuel fund.

Exacerbating the crisis for the fuel collaborative is a markedly slow pace of donations this year. Mike Tarantino, who reviews the applications, said he’s talked to friends in other nonprofit organizations across the country, and, “For some reason, donations are coming in very, very slow. This year, all of a sudden, (donations) are slower than heck.”

Larger nonprofits typically have other resources they can turn to in such cases, but not the BCC Fuel Collaborative. Had the town not helped out this year with the $5,000 in CDBG funds, most of the 24 families that have come forward to date would have been turned away, Lone said.

With the emergency fuel fund temporarily out of money, and funding delayed by LIHEAP, those in need can still go to the town’s General Assistance Program. But the GA income requirements are so low — a single person’s income can’t exceed $600 a month — that many people in need of heat in Bridgton don’t qualify for town help.

Most churches have some kind of fuel assistance fund available, but such funds are typically very limited, Lone said. Some charitable organizations, like the Bridgton Food Pantry, have taken to giving out Salvation Army vouchers for around $50 that allow needy people to fill a couple of five-gallon containers with K-1, or kerosene, to keep oil tanks from going completely dry and possibly ruining their furnaces.

The fuel collaborative was created seven years ago to help working families who were falling through the cracks, said Lone. Around $20,000 is raised each year, mostly through individual small donations. The financial pressures on working families, four years into the economic downturn, are only getting worse, she said, with cars breaking down, furnaces needing repair, and incomes not able to meet the challenge.

“Our backs are up against the wall — we’ve exhausted all of our resources, to the point where we don’t have enough clothes to wear,” she said.

And now the BCC Fuel Collaborative has exhausted its resources as well. The number of working families asking for help is once again on the rise, in addition to those who are on fixed incomes or disability.

Tarantino said that in the three years he’s been in charge of reviewing applications for the collaborative, his eyes have been opened, as he realizes all of the subsidies people have to rely on just to get by from week to week.

“We’ve got some very, very poor people,” he said. “We’ve got some people living on $10,000 a year — and they can’t get on general assistance.” The collaborative’s income guidelines are more relaxed, but it still breaks his heart to have to turn some people away who exceed the guidelines, yet have found themselves in situations of genuine need.

Based on the type of fuel needed, it can cost anywhere from just over $300 to $500 or more to help just one family, said Tarantino. “I want to help people, but I can’t help them if I don’t have any money,” he said.

Tarantino also has sympathy for the donators, who are themselves feeling somewhat tapped out as the pressures on their annual charitable giving continue to rise.

“During this time of year, people usually open their wallets up a bit more,” he said. “But you can only push the button so many times.” People are becoming more sophisticated in their giving, he added, as they seek to ensure that their donations actually benefit the people they want to help.

Lone said giving to the BCC Fuel Collaborative is a good choice for many who want to see 100% of their donations used for assistance. “Here’s something to think about: if you’re going to give $100, $50, $20 or $10, think about (giving it) locally. Think about the impact you could pass to your neighbors, your friends, the guy across the street.”

Lone said she expects to be receiving around $2,000 soon from a recent charity event put on by local restaurants, and may also be getting another infusion from CDBG funds, if the town agrees. In the meantime, she is still accepting applications from clients on a first-come, first-served basis but they cannot be processed until more funds come available.

Tarantino encourages any potential donors with questions about the collaborative’s guidelines to call him at either 647-5297 or 671-4138. Donations in the form of a check may be sent to: BCC Fuel Collaborative, 15 Depot Street, Bridgton, ME 04009.

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