There isn't any magic bullet for the food and energy crisis local officials are anticipating this winter, Katherine Plourde, the city's social services chief said.
Plourde, along with Thomas Morrow of the Bristol Community Organization, led a meeting of representatives of community agencies and city departments to start planning for the heating season.
"There's no pockets of money," Plourde said.
Plourde said the local agencies are already tapping into the assistance that is available, and Morrow said state aid may be cut back this year, leaving fewer funds available.
"There's such a great need out there," said Plourde. "We can't possibly meet it."
Any new money, Plourde said, will be coming from donations.
Morrow said it's possible that some people will be trying to choose between food and heat this winter. That could cause a run on the food pantries and food banks, Morrow said.
Capt. Mark Hager of The Salvation Army said he's already seeing more people at the soup kitchen. The pantry is fairly well stocked now, Hager said, because of the recent postal workers food drive, but he said with increased demand, the food could disappear quickly.
Mayor Art Ward, who decided the city and local agencies should start planning now rather than wait for a crisis, asked Morrow and Plourde to take the lead in bringing representatives together to see what resources are available and how they can best be used.
"We can coordinate a lot of good," said Ward. "We need everybody, even those not directly affected with the need to realize the need and be part of the solution."
Peggy Sokol, director of aging services, said she's dealing with about 6,000 Bristol seniors. Those who may not have needed much help in the past may be struggling this winter, she said.
"Half of them are going to be in trouble," said Sokol. "That's a lot of people."
As home heating costs rise, Bristol Fire Chief Jon Pose said he can just about imagine what lies ahead for his department.
"It isn't a pretty picture," said Pose. "People do some very bizarre things to heat their houses."
Building Official Guy Morin said some people try to rely on space heaters as primary sources of heat rather than to supplement in a cold room.
"We're now seeing the use of portable heaters," said Morin. He said people turn off the furnace and expect the small heaters, often running off an extension cord, to handle heating the home, when they're not built for it.
It creates a dangerous fire hazard, according to Morin.
"It's going to be an awful problem," said Pose. "I can see it already."
Police Chief John DiVenere said he's expecting an uptick in crime, including drive-offs from gas stations.
Morrow said everyone can help, even if it is as simple as connecting with an elderly neighbor and checking in occasionally to make sure that person has food and heat – or, in the summer, isn't suffering from the heat.
In addition to citizens on low or fixed incomes that are already known, Ward said, he's expecting more Bristol people to be in need. With a recession upon us and energy and food costs escalating, the mayor said, people may find themselves newly out of work.
"The need is there," said Ward.
Ed Luczkow, emergency planning coordinator for Bristol, said the social issues of escalating food and energy costs during a recession is something the town has to face together.
"This is a community problem," Luczkow said.
"This is a major issue in the community," said John Leone, president of the Greater Bristol Chamber of Commerce.
"The very poor have very deep concerns. The middle class aren't much better," said Leone.
A lot of people can't simply write out a check for a big oil delivery, said Leone. He said bankers need to be brought into the conversation to see how they could help because oil dealers can't afford to carry debt for a month or two like they've done in the past.
Years ago, people used to set aside a little money every now and then for a Christmas Club account, said Leone, suggesting a new twist on the concept.
"Your Christmas present this year is probably your oil," said Leone.
It isn't just residents who will be facing big heating bills this winter.
Phillip Lysiak, director of the St. Vincent DePaul Society of Bristol, which operates three shelters in town, including the Bristol Emergency Shelter, said heating costs could be crippling this winter, even as he's expecting more homeless needing shelter.
"The prices are going to affect us, too," said Lysiak, who said there is an "outside chance" that the shelter won't be able to pay its bills and will need emergency help to stay open.
The shelter is probably going to have to address the issue of an "overflow" of clients, said Lysiak. The capacity is 25, but can be pushed to 30 if necessary, said Lysiak.
Warren Corson, director of Community Counseling of Central Connecticut and a therapist there, said last year, members of the board of directors pitched in to help pay the heating bill.
Corson said he has clients who are middle class but cannot afford to pay a $60 co-pay for mental health care. As a result, Corson said, they'll drop their treatments and some end up losing their jobs as a result.
Plourde and Morrow said they will form sub-committees from Monday's participants to tackle specific issues and then reconvene in about a month.
Heating oil dealers worrying, too
After more than two decades in the oil business, Michael Monnerat is bracing for the worst this winter.
"This season is probably going to be one of the scariest in 24 years I've been in the business," said Monnerat, general manager of Power Fuels on Brook Street.
Though Monnerat said he's not concerned about the oil supply, he said there's no telling what the prices will be.
"It's become almost a guessing game," said Monnerat, involving prices for oil, gas and diesel and what is heading for this country or elsewhere in the world. "It's so complex."
Monnerat said he was involved with the energy assistance programs managed by the Bristol Community Organization last year, but isn't sure he'll participate this coming winter. He spoke out at a meeting of community leaders who gathered Monday over concerns for the coming winter.
The pricing system for the energy aid programs, Monnerat said, is set by the government and the reimbursement can at times be less than the oil distributor's cost.
"The oil dealers lose money. It's a sad thing," said Monnerat. "As a business decision, a lot of dealers are saying we cannot do it."
Dave Rappleyea of Crown Oil said escalating oil costs aren't good for oil dealers.
"The higher the price, the less you make," Rappleyea said.
That's because people are trying so hard to save energy, Rappleyea said, including putting in pellet stoves and gas heaters.
"You'll do everything and anything not to burn oil," Rappleyea said.
Years ago, an oil dealer could make a decent profit but now things are so much more complex, said Monnerat.
Cash flow is a problem, according to Monnerat, and the days of carrying a bill for a month or two are coming to a close. He said there won't be many companies offering oil pre-buy pricing programs, and more will demand cash on delivery.
"Receivables have become extreme," said Monnerat. "A lot of smaller oil companies are doing COD. They want payment up front."
Smaller deliveries also cut into profits.
"Most companies have a minimum delivery of 150 gallons," said Monnerat. He said he'll make a delivery of 100 gallons, but always warns the customer up front that there will be a delivery charge added to it.
In some cases, the company makes about $30 on a delivery, Monnerat said, and it costs $125 an hour to operate one of the trucks.
They try to squeeze in as many deliveries as possible because the margins are so tight, Monnerat said.
Monnerat said people in his line of work feels for their customers who are struggling and they know and understand their worries.
"You hear everyone's hardship," said Monnerat. "It's not that anyone is heartless in any way."
But in the end, he has to run a business. Insurance costs are $30,000 to $50,000, Monnerat said, plus expenses for environmental concerns and then there's the staff to think about.
"I have employees I have to pay," said Monnerat.
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