Nearly 30,000 Vermonters will qualify for assistance paying heating bills this winter. That figure has doubled since 2005, but funding for the federal program is shrinking, leaving tough choices for those who rely on it.
"We are going to make sure they have oil in their tank to get through the winter," said Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont.
The federal government is expected to put $17 million into Vermont's program, down from a recession high of $36 million and about $1 million less than last year. The state Legislature voted to kick in $6 million of its own last spring, and Thursday, key members of financial committees gave the green light to an additional $2.1 million.
"Whether they heat with pellets, natural gas or oil or anything in between-- coal, whatever-- the average benefit with that funding is projected to be $797," said Richard Moffi of the Vermont Fuel Assistance Program.
That's about $80 per person higher than it would have otherwise been. The more economically-challenged and those who heat with costlier, petroleum-based fuel will receive larger payouts than others.
"With sequestration and all the things going on in Washington, this won't be the only program where suddenly, very serious human needs are not being met by the federal sources that used to exist," said Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden County.
Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding and the Emergency Board have another $4.4 million to help fill holes left by the feds. But with drastic cuts expected, legislators are likely to be facing tough choices of their own soon.
Republican House Minority leader Don Turner says it's very important that the state assist Vermonters in need of fuel assistance. However, he says the state can't continue to make up for lost federal funds when its budget is currently projected to be $50 million in the red.