Last September, 64-year-old Bob Krumrey of rural Bemidji last September, said things didn't look good.
He and his wife Nancy had a bone-dry fuel oil tank and they couldn't afford to fill it. Bob was worried how they'd stay warm this winter.
Back then, the price of fuel oil had jumped to more than $4 a gallon. Krumrey could only afford to buy heating fuel oil by the bucket full.
"It got kind of cold before we got any fuel assistance," he said. "It started out last fall I was buying five gallons at a time -- and we have to go quite a ways to get it."
“It got kind of cold before we got any fuel assistance. Last fall, I was buying five gallons (of fuel oil) at a time.”Bob Krumrey
Based on their household income, Krumrey and his wife qualified for $800 in fuel assistance. And even better, fuel oil prices plummeted to half of what they were last fall.
Back then, Krumrey figured they'd have to rely on space heaters to stay warm. But with the lower prices, he's managed to keep fuel in the tank.
"We're doing alright. We're still keeping warm," he said. "I think we're going to make it, because, you see, I've been putting that money on the oil account every month."
With lower fuel oil prices, the Krumreys have been able to keep up with their monthly heating costs.
That's better than last winter, when their fuel tank ran dry several times. They got heating assistance last year, too, but it wasn't enough.
Natural gas prices have dropped significantly since last fall, too.
That's eased the pressure for many families, according to Patty Hargrave, who works with the fuel assistance program for Beltrami and Cass counties. But many families are still struggling.
Last year, the program served a total of around 3,400 families in Beltrami and Cass counties. Already this winter, the number is approaching that figure and there are still hundreds more applications waiting to be processed.
Hargrave says more people are asking for help who've recently lost their jobs. She's had to turn away more families who are just above the income cutoff line to qualify for the program. That's roughly an annual income of $40,000 or less for a family of four.
"Applications are still coming in at a steady level because it's been a long, cold winter, and people who I think thought they could get through the winter are now finding that it's just too much for their budgets to handle," Hargrave said.
The past few years, agencies that distribute energy assistance money have run out before the end of the heating season. But that's not likely to happen this year.
Minnesota received $182 million dollars in federal funding for the program this season. That's more than twice as much as usual.
State Department of Commerce spokesman Bill Walsh says federal lawmakers made that decision last fall, when the price of energy was still sky high.
"Congress was trying to anticipate a very high price of natural gas, which is why they put so much money into the program for the winter," he said. "If there are any surprises, they're good surprises. We have more money and the price of natural gas is lower."
There's more good news for low income families who struggle to stay warm in the winter.
Last fall, Congress doubled Minnesota's funding for weatherization projects to $20 million dollars. That money is available now for qualifying families who want to add insulation or upgrade heating systems in their homes.
Bill Walsh says with the federal government's new stimulus package, there's even more money on the way.
"Now in the stimulus bill, they took the $20 million and went to, we think, we don't have the final number in, over $130 million," he explained. "So, you can see, a tenfold increase almost from a normal year... so there's a lot of projects we can do in weatherization."
That new weatherization money is intended to make homes more energy efficient. But it's also expected to create hundreds of much-needed new jobs in the process.