WESTMINSTER - Without federal assistance, said Dorothy Heffner, she and her husband, John, wouldn't have been able to pay heating bills for the past few years in their Liberty Street home.

"I don't think we could, because of the (cost of) medicine we're taking," Heffner said. Both are 75 and on Social Security, she said, and just one of her prescriptions costs $60 for a month's supply.

To stretch those federal dollars to help more people with heating bills, the state has reduced the aid to any one household this year, said Kelly Schweinsberg, the director of the fuel assistance program in Carroll.

On the average, Maryland Energy Assistance Program (MEAP) grants are expected to decrease from $257.30 per household in 1989 to $244.61 this year. Actual size of the grants and reductions depends on the type of heat, family income and household size. And while the amount of the decrease does not seem like a lot, rising energy costs can only further tax the budgets of low- or fixed-income families.

The Heffners, one of 1,267 Carroll families to be granted a share of $326,000 in MEAP aid last winter, are applying again this year. Dorothy said she isn't sure how the reduction will affect her budget, as she converted from oil to electric heat since last winter.

"We'll try to make do with what we get," she said.

People needing help can apply in person until March 31 at the Maryland Energy Assistance Program at Human Services Programs Inc., 10 Distillery Drive. New applicants can appear in person or phone 857-6240 to request an application. Repeat clients can mail forms to MEAP at P.O. Box 1657, Westminster, Md. 21157. The grants do not cover the entire cost of heating.

MEAP assistance is open to all ages. Family income must be below certain levels, but applicants do not have to be receiving other public aid to qualify, Schweinsberg said. (See accompanying chart.)

Human Services Programs expects to distribute $329,000 in MEAP grants to some 1,345 Carroll households this year, Schweinsberg said.

Rising heating oil costs won't affect grant size, which is based on the amount of federal money available and the income of the recipients, she said.

About half the households that received MEAP aid last year were made up of people over 60, Schweinsberg said.

Elizabeth Passman, director of the Senior Assistance and Information Program at the Department of Aging, said some seniors, before they learn of MEAP, set their thermostats dangerously low.

"The thing I find so sad is some of them don't keep their houses well heated," she said. "When you have arthritis and (other ailments), you shouldn't do that."

Passman said seniors who can't get to Human Services Programs can call her office for assistance with the application process.

Applicants must provide income information, as well as a copy of one of their utility or oil bills. Grant money is paid directly to the utility or oil company, which credits the customer's account.

People whose utilities are included in rent payments can qualify for the assistance. The money goes to the utility, and the landlord deducts the amount from the rent.

Passman urged seniors to apply for the aid as soon as possible.

"If heating costs, such as for oil, go up, seniors can get more for their money by buying it now," Passman said.

Social Security grants that increase in January could make a difference to a senior qualifying for the energy assistance, she said.

Other energy assistance programs available through Schweinsberg include:

* Fuel Fund -- Qualified applicants must face an emergency, such as a shut-off, and be a customer of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. If rigid income guidelines are met, the person pays one-third of the bill, the utility will forgive one-third (up to $6,000 in Carroll) and the Fuel Fund will pay the other third, using about $3,800 raised through donations in the county.

* Utility Service Protection Program -- For customers of B G & E and Potomac-Edison, the program divides heating costs into 12 equal monthly payments.

* Carroll County Wood Program -- Eligible families can receive up to two cords of wood cut by the county.

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