Rising fuel costs a chilling concern for Mass. residents

Rachel Dolin | 8/13/2008, 5:06 a.m.

For the last 30 years, Dorchester resident Wilhelmina Mathis has been receiving government subsidies to help her pay her winter heating bills. Last winter was hard enough for the 74-year-old Mathis, who spent the coldest months bundled in her warmest parka and huddled around her oven.

With fuel prices hitting all-time highs, Mathis and millions of other Americans are starting to fear the financial crunch of rising oil and gas costs.

“This is a problem,” Mathis said. “When the house gets cold I close the door and put the oven on and sit in the kitchen with my coat on, actually. I turn the thermostat down as low as I can get it without it turning off. I just don’t know what’s going to become of this winter.”

The outlook is not promising. Massachusetts residents who heat their homes with oil or gas will likely spend $1 billion more this year than in 2007, according to a report released last week by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute.

But despite this jarring jump in cost, the government has allocated fewer funds this year — $83 million, compared to $137 million in 2007 — to help Massachusetts residents like Mathis, said Bob Coard, president and CEO of Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), which provides a fuel-assistance program for low-income Boston-area residents.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Susan Kooperstein, ABCD’s director of public information. “People say that we say this every year, but this year is really different; this year is beyond a crisis. There is no way people can pay to fill their tanks with oil all winter when it’s going to cost $3,500 to heat a two-bedroom apartment.”

Last year, Massachusetts’ poorest families received $1,165 in aid from the state and federal governments combined. This year, the government has allocated just $503. On average, it’s going to cost an estimated $3,750 per household this winter, said Coard.

With that in mind, ABCD has joined 23 community action programs across the state to form a coalition aimed at raising money to help the 150,000 households — a third of which are below the federal poverty line — who receive fuel assistance.

“We’ve been pushing forward, talking to people, trying to get the news out about how much people need the assistance of these agencies,” Coard said.

“The last year of Mitt Romney [in 2006], he came in and got the state of Massachusetts to give us $20 million to supplement the money of the federal government,” he continued. “… Deval Patrick, in his first year [in 2007], we got $15 million. This year, so far, they’re talking about $10 million. It’s going backward, sliding, and people need more assistance because the price of oil is going up.”

But without more state and federal help, the efforts of these community programs will likely fall short. While the entire country stands to suffer from the government funding shortfall, Massachusetts residents may suffer the most, as the state accounts for nearly one-eighth of America’s oil heating consumption during the winter months.