AUGUSTA — In the face of deep cuts to federally funded heating assistance, Gov. Paul LePage joined a group of charitable organizations Friday to kick off the Keep ME Warm fundraising initiative.

The initiative aims to buy 100 gallons of fuel for 1,000 Maine families, supplementing emergency fuel programs. To do that, the initiative needs to raise $350,000 to offset cuts to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP.

“The Keep ME Warm initiative is launching at a critical time,” Lisa Laflin, chairwoman of the United Ways of Maine, said during a press conference Friday at the United Way of Kennebec Valley office on Water Street. “It is no secret that the current economic challenges in Maine and the country are causing many to have to make difficult choices. On a daily basis, United Ways and their community partners witness Mainers having to decide whether to pay for rent, food, prescriptions or fuel. It’s imperative we join together and do what we can to avoid a crisis.”

LePage was joined at the press conference by state housing authority Director Dale McCormick and Ken Fletcher, director of the Maine Office of Energy Independence and Security.

The governor said the cuts to LIHEAP — dropping Maine’s funding from $54 million last year to $38.5 million this year — would be a blow to Mainers this winter amid rising heating oil prices. Meanwhile, changes to federal eligibility standards mean some people who qualified for heating assistance last year won’t this year. Yet LIHEAP applications are up about 5 percent, LePage said.

“What’s happening is sort of like a perfect storm this year,” LePage said.

LePage said the housing authority estimates that the average heating benefit will fall from $802 last winter to $483 this winter.

Keep ME Warm, a collaboration of the 10 United Ways in Maine and the 10 Community Action Programs, aims to help those who may not be eligible for limited federal, state or local fuel assistance programs, LePage said.

“I want to thank the local United Ways of Maine and the Community Action agencies for all their hard work with this program,” LePage said. “Together, let’s make this a warmer, safer winter for 1,000 Maine families.”

Pat Kosma, chief executive officer of Kennebec Valley Community Action Program and president of the Maine Community Action Association, said community action agencies are responsible for accepting applications for the LIHEAP.

“More people than ever are facing the prospect of an unheated home,” Kosma said, saying many seniors and families are struggling because of the economic slump.

Contributions to the Keep ME Warm initiative are tax deductible, officials said. A donation of $350 would provide a family with an emergency fuel delivery of 100 gallons, while $35 would pay for 10 gallons, they said.

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