Low-income residents in Howard County and throughout the state would have a harder time paying their heating bills this winter if Congress goes ahead with threats to cut a $1.3 billion federal fuel assistance program.
State officials project a $5 million cut to the Maryland Energy Assistance Program (MEAP), which helped 85,000 households in the state last year, about 1,300 of them in Howard. That would represent a 25 percent cut in the program's fiscal 1996 budget, which begins Oct. 1.
For Howard residents, it would reduce the one-time fuel assistance check by 15 percent to an average of $195, say officials at the nonprofit Community Action Council of Howard County, which administers the program locally.
Such cuts also would force the agency to lay off one employee, a $32,000 position.
"People will just have to tighten up," said Larry Hunt, program coordinator for Community Action. "I don't know how they'll do it. Many people we serve are elderly people on fixed incomes. They'll just have to take money from somewhere else in their budget."
The expected budget cuts would be the second in as many years to a program that helps 5.6 million households each year nationally, about 70 percent of them earning less than $8,000 a year.
Last year the state's $21 million program was cut by $750,000. In Howard, which paid out $267,965 in MEAP benefits, those cuts reduced the average benefits by $69. The average check was $226.
This year's funding levels remain uncertain, said Michael Kharfen, spokesman for the federal Administration for Children and Families, which oversees the national fuel program.
Although members of the Senate would cut it by an as-yet-unspecified amount, the House of Representatives has voted to eliminate the program, he said. President Clinton, meanwhile, has vowed to veto any bill that would eliminate it, Mr. Kharfen said.
Even so, state officials already are warning local agencies that some reduction is inevitable this year, said J.C. Shay, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Resources. Officials say that projections by the federal government earlier this year have led them to expect a $5 million cut.
With less money for fuel assistance this year, county and state officials are banking on meteorologists' predictions of a mild winter similar to last year's.
"But if we have a bad winter, the people who were able to make it last year might not be able to make it this year," said Mr. Hunt.
To help reduce fuel bills, the Community Action Council also will weatherize homes of qualified low-income residents by sealing air leaks throughout their houses. The weatherization program is available both to homeowners and those who rent. Landlords are required to pay 25 percent of the weatherization costs.
Eligibility for MEAP and the weatherization program is based on monthly household income. The standards, which so far have not changed from last year, are:
* One-person household maximum monthly income: $920.
* Two-person household maximum monthly income: $1,230.
* Three-person household maximum monthly income: $1,540.
* Four-person household maximum monthly income: $1,850.
* Five-person household maximum monthly income: $2,160.
* Six-person household maximum monthly income: $2,470.
Further information about the fuel assistance or weatherization programs is available by contacting the Community Action Council at 313-6440.