For most of my life, I didn’t have a job that paid the bills. Hell, two of us put together didn’t quite make it. Every winter month we would run out of fuel oil, and have to scrounge up the $450 needed for a minimum delivery of 150 gallons. We used space heaters for a few days every winter month.
It turns out that those were the good old days. Home heating fuels have doubled in price this year, and according to Sue Marcy, CEO of the local United Way, they are predicted to rise an additional 28 percent in the coming months. The maximum HEAP benefit is $900, as it was many years ago. That will buy just under 160 gallons of fuel oil at today’s prices, and less of kerosene, which is used in many mobile homes.
At today’s prices, a minimum delivery costs $850. A lot of people in the region won’t have the money to pay it, Cindy Beisel, deputy commissioner of the county department of social services, expects to have more applications this year than last.
I expect it to be a lot more, not just a few more.
We kept the heat at 62 degrees. We wore sweaters, sweatpants and thick socks. We kept blankets on all the furniture, so if we sat down we could cover up.
Nothing special about that. It’s pretty standard wintertime behavior for people in the Northeast. You’d be surprised how many people suggested these actions when I called to talk to them. Maybe they think poor people walk around in tee shirts with the thermostat set at 80 degrees.
There’s a freight train headed at all of us this winter. Thousands of families won’t be able to scrape up the nearly a thousand dollars for the minimum delivery. Many families this year I know will depend on wood heat or space heaters this year.
Space heaters are dangerous, as local firefighters are all too aware. Space heaters can start fires by malfunctioning, by overheating an extension cord, or by being too close to something which then catches fire. Firefighters are always mindful while fighting a smoky fire not to trip over a space heater.
We here in Ulster County are lucky enough to have a big surplus in the county government’s budget this year. The county is in a position to help slow the freight train. I can’t think of a more worthy cause. Can you?
Wouldn’t a snowy night be the right time for the use of a rainy-day fund?
I make the calls
My first call was to Doug Blancero at Community Action. We have a mutual friend, and he was helpful. Though he didn’t have any suggestions for how to fix what he agrees is definitely an issue, he suggested I start with the county executive’s office. I then made several calls to the executive’s, the comptroller’s and the county legislative offices.
County comptroller March Gallagher was friendly, bright, candid, helpful, and transparent. That’s a lot of positive adjectives. It gave me false hope that I might get such a response from others at the county level.
Gallagher thought that the idea of the county helping was sound, but the county itself had no mechanism to disburse funds to individuals. It was already late, she said, what with it already being November. I asked her if there was an organization they could give a grant to, and the organization could disburse the funds. She suggested maybe United Way, as they have a program already in place to help families in need of emergency funding for housing issues.
My next call was to Sue Marcy at United Way. She was all the things Gallagher was, and I started to really get hopeful. Sure, United Way would be happy to help, and partnership between them and the county was something they’d done before. Last year, through their emergency program, they had helped 376 households, and with the cost of everything way up they knew the need will have increased.
Where does the government get that “eight percent inflation” number, anyway? That is not even close to the real number. Very little has increased only eight percent. Electricity through the roof, rent is a total joke, buying groceries makes people literally cry. Used cars cost more than new cars just a few years ago. I do so wish we could talk about reality instead of some fantasy number.
Marcy mentioned that Family of Woodstock handles the application data for United Way, so a small portion might need to be given for that.
Cindy Beisel of social services sent me information showing that approximately 12.000 HEAP grants were given in 2021 during the regular HEAP round. An additional emergency HEAP round in the beginning of the new year was not included in this number. Many of the emergency grants will go to the same families who got the regular one, but not all. How many of the 12,000 received full or nearly full grants, and how many smaller amounts? Social services is working on getting the numbers.
There is a problem
We’re trying to figure out how to help our community stay safe this winter, right? The\ money is there for so just a cause. We have a mechanism to get the money to people who need it. The county executive’s office was going to send me a quote, but I don’t need a quote. I need a plan. The legislative office told me someone would call me, but no one has. The problem is, as was explained to me, that “the legislature can’t take an action unless the executive tells them there is a problem. Right now, they don’t know there’s a problem.”
I respectfully said that any legislator who wasn’t aware there is a problem was not doing his or her job. The woman on the phone said they would need to verify whether it was a problem. I said it would be quite easy to divide the maximum HEAP benefit by the cost of fuel oil. That calculation would identify that there was a problem.
I got a long message from the county executive’s office which said that the 2023 executive budget had included $700,000 for a pilot program modeled after HEAP. Families making 80 percent of the local median income would be eligible. It said that the eligibility point was $84,000.
I find it hard to believe that our median family income is $105,000.
At maximum benefit, this amount would help about 777 families. As Ulster County has approximately 70,000 families, this not a giant horn to blow. It will have to be approved in the 2023 final budget
The county did not mention who would administer the program, HEAP is now open, and you can apply through social services, whose number is 845-334-5000.
Abe Uchitelle called and is aware of the problem and is exploring ways, perhaps from the state rather than the county, to solve this very serious issue. He feels it should be statewide because the dangers are faced by the whole state and entire northeast, and he feels it is “as if the county is subsidizing the record profits of the oil companies.” He’s not wrong, but the problem is immediate and for that reason, I’d like to see the county take immediate action. In the meantime, here are the tips for safely using a space heater:
1. Never ever use a kerosene heater indoors. Carbon monoxide is a silent killer.
2. Don’t use an extension cord. They overheat and catch on fire because they can’t hold the load of a space heater.
3. Keep them three feet away from anything that might catch fire – the couch, the bed, the curtains.
Five million dollars would enable half of those 12,000 families to get an additional grant large enough for a minimum delivery, and still leave the county government with $50 million in surplus funds. I urge Ulster County government to think big, to be generous returning our own money to us, and most of all to think about its great fortune to be able to provide all its citizens with warmth this winter.
Is that too much to ask?