STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It may be hotter than, well, hot in the place where you live, but some people are already concerned about the winter, especially in New England. Not only was the past winter unusually long and snowy in some places, but with the high cost of energy, many households struggled to stay warm. And in Maine, where 80 percent of residents heat with oil, there are already big fears about next winter.
From Maine Public Radio, Susan Sharon has more.
SUSAN SHARON: In Maine, the price of home heating oil is already above $4.50 a gallon. That's $2 more per gallon than it was last June. And Jamie Pie of the Maine Oil Dealers Association says the average home uses more than 800 gallons a winter.
Mr. JAMIE PIE (Maine Oil Dealers Association): If you've gone from $2 a gallon, that's $1,600. You go to $4 a gallon, it's $3,200. You know, you're doubling up something that you probably have not increased your budget that much to help with.
SHARON: Not only have homeowners' budgets not kept pace with the rising cost of heating oil, but in some cases the double whammy of higher gasoline and grocery costs have simply ruined family bank accounts.
Cheryl Netto(ph) is a clerk at a convenience store in Auburn, Maine, who will soon be giving up her job to move to a different town. For the past 13 years, she and her husband have owned a four-bedroom house. But she says after they spent $3,000 trying to keep it heated this winter, they got behind on their mortgage payments.
Ms. CHERYL NETTO: We lost the house. We will be going into bankruptcy. We haven't done it yet. That's all we can do. We've got an apartment with heat in it, so we don't have to worry about that.
SHARON: Like many families strapped for cash, Netto says she and her husband looked into applying for financial assistance from their town. But at the time, they earned too much money. Low-income residents can also apply for the federal low-income heating-assistance program known as LIHEAP. Last winter, there were so many applications that some people were turned away. And even those who did qualify received an average benefit of about $600. Not even enough to cover a full tank of oil.
Governor JOHN BALDACCI (Democrat, Maine): This is going to be - and continues to be - a very challenging energy situation that we're in. It is an energy price crisis, and we've got to be working at it morning, noon and night.
SHARON: Maine Governor John Baldacci says every level of government should be trying to find solutions. And in the city of Auburn, collective hand-wringing over heating oil prices did spur local officials to undertake efforts to start a joint heating oil cooperative with about 600 residents. The idea was to lock in lower rates by buying in bulk. Larry Pelletier was among those who signed up.
Mr. LARRY PELLETIER: I'm looking forward to retiring in another year or so, so I'm going to be living, as many other people, on a fixed income. So any way that we can save money, we're looking to do it.
SHARON: There are concerns about possibly creating a virtual monopoly and putting small oil dealers out of business. And so far, the Auburn cooperative has not panned out. Even if it does go forward, Jaime Pie of the Maine Oil Dealers Association says it won't provide more than a few pennies a gallon in relief.
Mr. PIE: What we have today is not a five-cent problem. I mean, if you want to organize a group that can save you five cents, that's fine, go right ahead. We don't have a problem with that. The bigger problem is not a five-cent problem, it's a $2-a-gallon problem.
SHARON: Despite being in the hot seat in the heating oil crisis, Pie says oil dealers are family owned businesses with hundreds of employees whose prices are dictated by a volatile commodities market. And Pie says last year, many of them were stiffed by customers who ordered fuel and failed to pay for it. And he, too, is worried that this winter, the situation will be far worse.
For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon in Portland, Maine.
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