A life-or-death matter

Too many Vermonters can’t afford fuel, which gets kicked to the bottom of the priority list after rent, food, and medicine during a New England winter. Our government must attack this problem at multiple levels more aggressively.

BRATTLEBORO — Dear Sen. Sanders,

I am writing to you because fuel prices are so high that it will become a life-and-death matter this winter. I know you are well aware of this problem, but I am hoping that there is something more that can be done by the United States to at least bring prices down a little. It is clearly a very complicated issue.

In 2005, you attended the first fundraising event that the newly created Windham County Heat Fund held. Daryl Pillsbury and I started the fund with the expectation that it would be a short-term endeavor because fuel prices spiked back then.

Almost 18 years later, we are still at it.

We have raised over $750,000 over the years. We help about 100 families or individuals a year and receive donations from 80 to 100 local donors, organizations, corporations, and churches. The community support has been unwavering and solid.

We have learned that although the price of fuel is a burden when it is high, paying for fuel on a low or fixed income is always difficult - no matter the price. Fuel gets kicked to the bottom of the priority list after rent, food, and medicine during a New England winter.

We hear stories of many people who seal off their homes and live in the kitchen in the winter, using the stove to minimize fuel costs and sleeping in a recliner next to it. This seems to be the case for a number of elderly people. Most of them will not talk about their situation, and they are often too proud to ask for help.

Once in a while, we get a call from a neighbor who knows of someone who needs help and we arrange for an anonymous delivery of oil or kerosene. No one refuses a delivery when the truck pulls up.

Other situations are also becoming more and more common as prices rise to the currently obscene levels. We are now hearing from people who work two or three jobs and bring in yearly incomes of $50,000 to $60,000 for a family of four - and they just don't have the money to fill their fuel tank.

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The fuel market is so volatile it is making our job of helping people difficult. When we call a fuel dealer, they often tell us that, even though we are paying for 125 gallons of oil at that day's price, when they deliver the oil the price may change. That means that a person may not get the 125 gallons we thought we paid for.

In order to make sure of our commitment to people we help we have worked out an agreement with one local company that will deliver fuel we ask for and then tell us how much it costs when they deliver it.

It should not have to be so complicated.

One recent Friday, the price of a gallon of oil was $5.58. The next Monday, it was $5.83, and on Tuesday it was $5.95. As I write, kerosene is $7.30 a gallon. We paid for 125 gallons of kerosene for someone who lives in a local trailer park for $913.63.

Most people who live in mobile homes in trailer parks use kerosene. They are generally people who are living on low or fixed incomes. I cannot imagine what they will have to go through this winter. Many buy five gallons of diesel fuel at a time at a gas station and try to be as frugal with the heat as they can.

Elderly people who try to keep the thermostat at 58 degrees put themselves at high risk for hypothermia. Metabolism lowers as we age, and older people need more heat just to maintain a healthy body temperature. You can put on only so many extra layers before pneumonia and other diseases take hold. Covid only makes things worse, and the flu season is predicted to be severe this winter.

We also hear from people who have lost their jobs and their insurance because of a cancer diagnosis or other life-threatening illness. There are other issues at play here, but high fuel costs only make matters worse.

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The Windham County Heat Fund will do its best to ease some of the pain this winter, but unless our government finds a way to more aggressively attack this problem at multiple levels, a lot of Vermonters will suffer and die this winter.

I am begging you to work with your colleagues to do more than just increase funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP) Program. It does not address the problem, and we need more systemic fixes.

If there is anything we can do down here in Windham County to help fuel this effort, please let me know. I hope to hear from you on this matter.

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