The extraordinarily high cost of heating oil will affect everyone in Maine this winter, and islanders are no exception. Their costs, in fact, generally prove to be higher since island oil companies must pay additional transportation costs to deliver the product by ferry.
On islands along the coast, various groups are already preparing to help those who might be left in the cold by heating costs that will be much higher than they were last winter.
On Chebeague Island in Casco Bay, islanders in need can expect some relief if the cost of heating their homes proves too much for their budgets. Besides the federally funded Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Chebeague residents will have a couple of alternatives this year.
Founded to promote and assist island projects, when Chebeague was governed as part of the town of Cumberland, the Chebeague Island Council now also provides heating assistance, according to Ginny Ballard, council member and longtime island health provider, now semi-retired and working in hospice.
A lot of nonprofits back then saw a need, came together and fund-raised on their own to provide needed services. Ballard explained the council’s Samaritan Fund was launched to help islanders “who fell between the cracks” pay for expensive medications.
The council also supports the physician’s assistant who sees patients on the island one morning a week, flu shots, wellness clinics, humidifiers and medical emergency response buttons or any peripheral need related to a medical problem that insurance won’t cover. The council also publishes a monthly calendar.
“A couple of years ago, we began fuel assistance as an offshoot,” Ballard explained. “It’s on the honor system. If someone calls and says they need help, they get it.” Sometimes people are referred by agencies or friends, and sometimes Ballard calls on likely candidates to ask if they could use assistance.
She called on one family last winter and said, “I talked the wife into it.” When her husband found out, he canceled it. “Then 13 different people came to me and said that family needs help. I called the husband and told him he was outvoted. I said, ‘The fuel’s in your tank.'”
“Last year, we would put $250 directly toward fuel or an electric bill,” Ballard said. “This year, we’ll have to double it because $250 won’t go far.” Sometimes they put requests in the island’s monthly newsletter asking for money for fuel assistance funds. Sometimes survivors will ask for donations in obituaries for their loved ones in lieu of flowers.
“It all comes from the islanders themselves in some way, shape or form; some from summer people and some from year-round folks,” including an island oil dealer, said Ballard.
Linda Brewster, pastor of the island’s United Methodist Church, said of the island’s 350 residents, 35 families needed assistance in the last heating season. She expects that number will be higher this year. The first step the church will take is a weatherization program.
“We had an invitational meeting in early August,” said Brewster. “We plan on having available teams of workers who will help people put up storm windows and plastic, do caulking, wrap pipes, make door strips to stop drafts-things to tighten the house, use less fuel, because fuel money won’t go as far this season.
“A lot of folks don’t have the physical ability to put up storm windows or the money to pay to have it done,” Brewster said. “It made sense to help them, not just give them cash.”
“We are putting together a list of people who will do the work and a list of people who need the work,” Brewster said. “We started with church members, but we plan to enlist the larger community.”
Islanders have a tradition of taking care of one another anyway, so it’s no surprise that the council plans to urge people who clean up woodlots on Chebeague bring scrap wood to a central place for people who need firewood to use. “It’s not organized yet, but it’s happening in a casual way,” said Deborah Bowman, director of the Chebeague Island Library.
Brewster said a food pantry will open in September so people can pick up food if they need it, or volunteers will deliver food boxes to the homebound.
As of its August recess, Congress had failed to vote an increase in LIHEAP funds and supporters of the program’s expansion warn fewer people will be helped because the funds won’t cover last year’s need, let alone this year’s much higher fuel costs. Also, the higher costs mean many more people are expected to apply for assistance.
On the dealer side, it takes more time and money to get heating oil out to the islands. Chip Warren owns Alternative Oil, one of Vinalhaven’s two oil dealerships. He said a 2,800-gallon truckload of oil costs an extra $350 for pickup and transportation fees to service the island and takes an entire day to pick up. His truck arrives at the island ferry dock by 10 a.m. to go to Rockland’s industrial park to fill up. Then the driver waits for the 3:15 p.m. ferry to arrive back on the island at 4:30 p.m.
Islanders who don’t have a Samaritan Fund or other funds to help out, may be in tougher shape this year.
Swan’s Island, with 350 year-round, helps residents apply for LIHEAP and has a general assistance fund, but no particular fuel assistance program.
North Haven’s town administrator, Joseph L. Stone, said the island has no particular programs in place for fuel assistance, either. “But the island has a charitable fund in existence, the go-to place for assistance, often dispersed through the church discretionary fund. When the municipal budget for general welfare is low, people go to the church.”
“I imagine this coming year heating costs will be significant,” said Stone. “There are people I know who live on the economic edge, but the island tradition involves a certain reluctance to ask for help-especially from the town.”
Marjorie Stratton is the town manager of Vinalhaven, the most populated of the 14 year-round island communities. The town encourages people to apply for LIHEAP funds first, then helps through the town’s general assistance she administers, and also has a local fuel assistance program funded by private donations and administered by the Pleasant River Grange.
“I’m really, really concerned. I went to a forum in Rockland on energy conservation because everyone expects flat funding for LIHEAP,” said Stratton. “There will be a lot of people out there who can’t afford fuel this year.”
If there’s an additional emergency, there’s a Vinalhaven Community Outreach program that’s not specifically for fuel but is designed for “accidents and medical emergencies-I think keeping people from freezing would qualify.”