PHILMONT–The polar vortex has returned this week with a vengeance, but residents of Richardson Hall aren’t going to run out of heating oil again like they did when the arctic temperatures first arrived at the start of the month.
The 24 apartments reserved for low income seniors and people with disabilities at 112-114 Main Street is one of several subsidized housing facilities around the county managed by Housing Resources of Columbia County (HRCC), a nonprofit organization. On January 3, 2014, as the region experienced near-record cold, the two fuel oil tanks that feed the Richardson Hall furnace ran dry, and because HRCC had not paid the Long Energy company between $25,000 and $30,000 for previous deliveries, only a small amount of oil was delivered. It quickly ran out leaving the residents of Richardson Hall, all of whom are seniors, without heat once again.
David Pearce, head of the volunteer HRCC board, said the organization worked with Long Energy to bring sufficient fuel to the building by January 6. A plan is now in place that calls for the daily monitoring of fuel oil levels during cold weather, and HRCC as well as the county Board of Supervisors and the office of Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106th) are looking for ways to prevent similar problems from recurring.
Bob Long Jr. of Long Energy confirmed this week that his company delivered heating fuel to Richardson Hall following a payment made by Housing Resources. “What we’re trying to do with them is trying to get through the winter,” said Mr. Long.
He acknowledged that fuel oil companies do have to follow “a set of rules” before halting all deliveries. “We’re a family company,” he said, adding that his father, owner Bob Long Sr., has spoken with Mr. Pearce about what can be done to “keep some oil in the tanks.”
The building was not on an automatic delivery program with a single dealer.
Richardson Hall, originally built around 1880, was completely refurbished nearly 15 years ago to accommodate senior housing. It is privately owned by the Richardson Family and an outside investor. The rents, collected by HRCC and used to operate the project, are established by state government guidelines and supplemented by state and federal funds subsidies.
Mr. Pearce said the heating crisis came about because of a “cash problem,” which he attributed to a number of factors, including slow payments from the state and insufficient revenue from the rents and subsidies. Richardson Hall, he said, “has been living on borrowed money.”
One source of help could be the federally financed HEAP heating assistance program for low-income households. But that will eventually require metering the fuel oil used by each apartment, because multiple dwelling units are not directly eligible. The apartments don’t currently have fuel use meters, but residents have been asked to fill out applications and Mr. Pearce expects the program will make payments for some of the fuel.
HEAP payments, however, can only be used for current fuel payments, not past bills.
Mr. Pearce said this week that the rents set by the state for the Richardson Hall apartments were last adjusted 10 years ago and don’t reflect today’s much higher fuel prices. He said he hoped that would change when Richardson Hall comes up for refinancing next year.
Kary Jablonka, head of the county Office for the Aging, was not available to answer several calls to his office.
In a phone interview with Philmont Mayor Skip Speed said he had heard about the loss of the heat but the village had not received a request for help. “Nobody talked to me,” he said.
In letter to all Richardson Hall residents this week Mr. Pearce wrote “I want to apologize on behalf of Housing Resources for letting each and every one of you here at Richardson Hall down. There are simply NO excuses for what occurred with the heating situation.” He goes on to explain how HRCC has “re-structured” the tracking of oil levels and deliveries to prevent a similar problem in the future, adding, “HRCC has been actively seeking alternative funding sources to supplement the escalating costs of oil in these very difficult economic times.”