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Home heating aid up, but costs rise higher

Mai-Anh Hoang

Funding to help low-income households pay their heating bills has increased by $21.5 million this year, but a coalition of Massachusetts community groups contend that even with that bump, the aid isn’t keeping pace with fuel costs.

Advocates for elderly and low-income residents rallied at the State House last Wednesday morning to urge Gov. Deval Patrick to do more to protect the poor this winter. The rally took place just hours before the governor announced a “fiscal action plan” marked by spending cuts designed to close a state budget gap of more than $1.4 billion.

The federal government doubled its funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) this year, giving Massachusetts an extra $11.5 million. In August, Patrick approved an additional $10 million for fuel assistance, giving the state a total of $184 million. However, high costs of both heating oil and natural gas — coupled with high food prices, a rising unemployment rate and a flagging economy — could result in many households that receive LIHEAP assistance staying just as cold this winter.

Advocates from the Massachusetts Association for Community Action (MASSCAP) say the current fuel-assistance budget will only be enough to get households through January.

At current levels of funding, LIHEAP aid would only allow households to buy one and one-half tank of oil, according to John Cuneo, executive director of Haverhill-based nonprofit Community Action Inc.

But “it takes three to four tanks to get through winter,” he said.

Average heating oil prices in Massachusetts have declined since reaching a high of $4.71 per gallon in July. The average price was $3.32 per gallon as of Oct. 15, up from $2.75 per gallon last year, according to the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources.

But if the trend reverses and costs once again rise, said Charlie Harak, senior attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, LIHEAP clients could exhaust their fuel benefit before January. If that happened, he added, those without available cash could have to turn to charitable organizations, simply suffer through the cold or resort to potentially dangerous alternatives, such as space and kerosene heaters.

“When people struggle to pay for heat, they sometimes go without food, or they use unsafe heating methods or they fall behind on rent or mortgage payments — or, sadly all three of those,” said Cuneo.

At the rally, Cuneo called for an additional $15 million to help Massachusetts’ elderly residents. The advocates’ plan would allow 20,000 elderly households with incomes above the current eligibility level to receive up to $800 in fuel assistance. He argued that low-income elderly are particularly vulnerable due to this year’s financial crisis — on top of nutrition and health challenges, and the declining value of investments like retirement funds, some seniors also risk losing their homes.

Cuneo said that while $800 per household may seem like a lot, it really is only a tank of oil.

“A tank-full to help those poor in these volatile times is not really that much to ask,” he said.

Cuneo also called on Patrick to adopt two policies. First, he asked that the governor keep the additional $10 million aid allocation in the budget for fiscal year 2009. Next, he advocated for the creation of a fuel-assistance line item in the state budget, so that on July 1 each year, LIHEAP clients will know how much financial assistance will be available. The state’s investment in fuel assistance now comes in the form of supplemental budgets appropriated at different times of the year.

Getting the Patrick administration to implement those two suggestions will likely be difficult given revised budget estimates that show a deficit of over $1.4 billion.

Saying the “financial turmoil around the world has now hit home here in Massachusetts,” Patrick last Wednesday announced more than $1 billion in cuts and spending controls, the elimination of 1,000 state jobs and the extraction of an additional $200 million from the state’s rainy day fund to balance the loss in revenue collections.

“There are no easy choices here,” Patrick said. “… But the sacrifice must be shared. Many worthy ideas and good people will be affected.”

Last Wednesday’s rally also honored three longtime advocates for fuel assistance.

MASSCAP presented Community Action Champion Awards to state Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, chair of the legislative committee that recommended the Commonwealth provide additional fuel assistance for needy families this winter; state Rep. Paul Donato, D-Malden, a longtime supporter of fuel-assistance programs; and Jack Hamilton, executive director of Community Action Agency of Somerville, whose agency has made fuel assistance the focal point of its work.

“If we don’t deliver, people die,” said Hamilton, who received a standing ovation as he accepted his award. “Fuel assistance is the basis [of our work] that keeps people alive.”

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.