By Kirk Carapezza
Gov. Peter Shumlin announced on Wednesday that Vermont’s emergency fuel assistance for low-income Vermonters will run out of funds by the end of the week.
His administration is asking the Legislature to come up with additional funding – something that he admits is hard to find in a tight budget year. As the threat of across-the-board federal spending cuts becomes increasingly more real, however, Shumlin expects Congress to continue to slash the emergency fuel assistance known as LIHEAP. So he’s urging state lawmakers to act.
Back from a weekend trip to Washington, Shumlin said the Legislature should prioritize weatherization services. He also told lawmakers to review the program’s eligibility standards to make sure money is going to those who otherwise might go cold in the winter.
“Clearly we’re not going to be getting more federal dollars,” Shumlin said. “In fact, it’s more likely, based on my experience in Washington over the last few days, that we’re going to see cuts to the programs. So we just got to find a way to deliver a bigger bang for the buck.”
Last year, Vermont served more than 7,200 families that requested fuel assistance. So far this year it has assisted more than 4,500.
Richard Moffi, who directs Vermont’s fuel assistance program, said federal funding has been shrinking in recent years, and he estimated the state has nearly exhausted the $2.8 million lawmakers set aside specifically for emergency fuel assistance.
Moffi said $900,000 could help to get people in need through the next three weeks, at a time of year that traditionally has seen high fuel demand.
“It’s going to be a real big help for folks getting through the next few weeks, especially as the weather goes from really nice to kind of bitter,” Moffi said as temperatures dropped and a light snow fell Wednesday afternoon.
The shortage of emergency fuel comes as a surprise, Shumlin admitted. “If we knew exactly why we were having demand outstrip supply, we wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place,” he said.
The Shumlin administration will make recommendations to the House and Senate appropriation committees in the coming weeks.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Shumlin said. “This is a really tough budget. But I know that there’s not a Vermonter out there that wants to see us have Vermonters go through the month of March cold and without a furnace that’s running.”