Wait for Spring Gets Longer
Stubborn Winter Weather Eats Into Household Budgets
Christopher Dozier, 6, left, and his cousin, Caleb King, 6, shovel the driveway and sidewalk at their grandmother's house in Lebanon, N.H., on March 11, 2014. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Josh Repoza of Corinth puts chains on his propane truck before going up a Dead River customer's driveway in South Royalton Wednesday, March 12, 2014. The fresh snow kept Repoza off the road for much of the day except for a few important deliveries to customers who were running low on fuel. "I love the job, I love the people," he said of the work which takes him all over the back roads in the White River Valley. "I'm not a big fan of fossil fuels, never was. I hope I live long enough to see the day when we don't need fossil fuels anymore."
(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Bethel — The lingering wintry weather brought more heavy snow, ice and biting wind to the Upper Valley, and between fuel bills and extra orders of salt, the season also has hit residents and municipalities in the wallet.
Bethel resident Jeanne Mattson, 77, struggled to hold back tears in an interview as she described an outstanding $2,000 balance on her propane account that she could only afford to pay by selling a ruby ring given to her by her late husband for their 40th anniversary.
“I can’t afford this,” she said. “I’m just so upset.”
Mattson lives on a fixed income, a combination of a monthly withdrawal from her savings and Social Security, and resides alone in a three-bedroom house built by her husband.
She finds her two wood stoves to be too difficult to manage because of arthritis, and so she relies primarily on propane for heat, she said.
“It’s hard for me to be building fires,” she said.
She has already cut back on expenses by switching to a basic television plan, closing off some rooms in her house, driving her car less and skimping on food, she said.
Mattson isn’t the only one cutting corners on the household food bill. The Claremont Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry has seen 1,000 new people since July 1, said director Jan Bunnell.
“We’ve been so busy,” she said.
Among Bunnell’s new clients are families with young children and elderly people on fixed incomes, she said. Many people are struggling to pay their heating bills and are just a paycheck away from crisis, she added.
The soup kitchen has been fortunate in that it has found large quantities of food from area grocery stores and through volunteer-organized food drives. Even while stocks of food have been sufficient, grant funding has diminished, she said.
“I plan on doing more fund drives,” Bunnell added.
Vermont Fuel Assistance Program Chief Richard Moffi expressed disappointment upon hearing that Mattson said she doesn’t qualify for fuel assistance.
“We really don’t want to hear that folks are self-deciding if they’re eligible,” he said.
He urged people who are struggling to pay their heating bills to contact the state or their local community action agency.
About 28,000 Vermonters have received fuel assistance this winter, said Moffi. The average benefit this year for Vermonters was about $800, down about $100 from 2012-13.
“It’s been a tough winter, there’s no getting around it,” he said.
Moffi attributed demand for assistance to the “extreme cold” and spikes in propane prices.
“Over $5 a gallon is unaffordable for most folks in northern New England on fixed incomes struggling to get by,” he said.
The deadline to apply for seasonal fuel assistance was Feb. 28, but crisis fuel assistance will continue through March 21. He invited people to continue to apply for seasonal fuel support, so they would be in line for benefits next winter.
Moffi added that shortages of wood pellets and firewood have further compounded heating challenges.
“It’s been rough all around,” he said.
Municipalities have struggled to maintain salt stores.
Norwich’s road salt supply dwindled significantly over the course of the winter, said Town Manager Neil Fulton.
In working with a Maine-based supplier, they were able to restock to 350 tons ahead of Wednesday’s storm, he said. Overall the town is running about 10 percent over its salt budget.
While the winter hasn’t brought above normal amounts of snow, it has spread precipitation out over about 35 percent more “events” than normal, Fulton noted.
Hanover also has run low on salt at times this winter, said Town Manager Julia Griffin.
She attributed the shortage to demand from the south and said she would like to beef up the town’s salt storage by replacing a dilapidated shed with a much larger one. The additional space would allow the town to stock up ahead of time.
To ration salt stores, Lebanon has been mixing what salt they have with sand.
“In situations where we may have gone with a straight salt application, we’re mixing salt and sand together,” said Public Works Director Mike Lavalla. “We’re still able to do what we need to do.”
A Plainfield school bus slipped off the road at the intersection of Bonner Road and Main Street during the snowstorm on Wednesday afternoon. No one was injured and no damage occurred as a result of the incident, said Plainfield Police Sargent Matt Foss.
The town’s road crew was able to get the bus back on the road in short order, Foss said.
“To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t think we’ve had it all that bad,” he said.
In some cases, winter has brought good with the bad.
Griffin pointed out that Hanover’s reservoirs will be “topped off” by the snow pack this year.
“We like reservoirs more full rather than less full,” she said.
Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.