WATERVILLE — Lori Williams attends college full-time, answers phones at H&R Block on Saturdays during tax season and sometimes opens the oven door to help keep her 2-year-old son, Ethan, warm.

Williams told U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, on Thursday how federal cuts to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program have affected her.

Williams attended a meeting of the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, and as Thursday’s snowstorm blew outside, the single parent said that last year she received about $500 to help heat her Waterville residence; this year she said she was told that, if she’s lucky, she’ll get $200.

“This is a matter of life and death, as you all know,” Snowe said to KVCAP officials seated around a conference table at its Water Street office. “There’s no reason for such a (funding) battle on such an important program.”

It wasn’t the first time Thursday that Mainers had told Snowe that they used their ovens as heating sources or poured a few gallons of diesel vehicle fuel in their empty oil furnace tanks.

Before her afternoon stop in Waterville, Snowe met diners and employees at Dysart’s Truck Stop & Restaurant in Bangor, then visited Penquis in Bangor, which seeks to prevent and eliminate poverty and engage community members to address economic and social needs in Penobscot, Piscataquis and Knox counties.

In 2011, Congress provided $4.7 billion in LIHEAP funds for low-income households; Mainers received about $56.5 million. About 63,500 Maine households, with an average income of $16,300, received the benefits averaging $804 over the winter heating season, according to MaineHousing, which oversees the program for the state.

This year, though, Congress provided $3.5 billion in energy assistance funds, $1.2 billion less than in 2011; Maine’s amount will be about $30 million, which is roughly $26.5 million less than a year ago.

Snowe said that’s not enough.

She, along with Sens. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, and Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, have called on Senate leadership to make restoration of heating assistance funding a priority for 2013 when Congress returns in later this month.

Snowe also sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Dec. 9, saying “At a time when the average heating bill this winter is expected to be over $3,000 per household, America’s most vulnerable families can’t afford this draconian cut.”

The Governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security survey on Monday said the statewide average cash price for No. 2 heating oil was $3.68 per gallon in Maine, an increase of 11 cents from last week.

“By and large, we can’t control the price of oil,” Snowe said. “We can conserve and be more efficient and weatherize, but the price of oil is subject to volatile world events. We are seeing a 30-percent increase in the price of oil and a 16-percent cut in the LIHEAP program.”

Williams said she scrimps in any number of ways to get by, including covering her home’s windows with plastic, shoveling her driveway and giving baked cookies as Christmas presents.

“I told my boss that if I could find a baby-sitter on Sundays, I would work then,” Williams said. “I hate to do that because it’s my only day with my son, but I would do it.”

Instead of asking for Christmas presents, Williams said she asked for money to buy books for her classes at Thomas College.

Williams, who said KVCAP and its programs have helped her succeed, said she anticipates graduating in 2013 from Thomas with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She said that she will be self-sufficient.

“I will be able to provide for us … and buy oil,” she said. She looked at Ethan and said, “And I guarantee you, he will be successful.”

Beth Staples — 861-9252

bstaples@centralmaine.com