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New England states may be forced to reduce heating aid

Andrew Miga

 WASHINGTON — With Congress expected to gut a federal home heating aid program, possibly cutting it in half, New England states are preparing to reduce benefits or the number of households receiving aid just as fall begins.

Congress, wrestling with record deficits and facing strong pressure to slash spending in its drawn-out budget battle, is expected to scale back the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

New England Farmworkers Council energy program director Mary Ann Koblyanski said a 50 percent cut would be “devastating” for the households in Springfield that need the council’s help.

“It is going to be tough. It is going to be a very tough year,” Koblyanski said.

Last winter, her organization assisted more than 12,000 households in Springfield, where it received applications from about 14,400. It gave out about $9 milllion in aid, a figure that could shrink to $4.5 million.

The council may be reduced to giving out only about enough for one tank of heating oil per household, which she said will not last a winter.

Last year, she said the council could offer as much as $1,000 per household, but that would have to drop to $400 to $500 if the cut materializes. A 50 percent cut could also mean having to slash her program’s staffing of 15 employees in half, according to Koblyanski.

“We are real concerned,” Heriberto Flores, executive director of the farmworkers council, said.

“We’re working against a worst-case scenario and we are very worried,” said Richard Moffi, fuel assistance program chief for the Vermont Department for Children and Families.

“Most states are planning on deep cuts” to the program that provides heating and cooling subsidies nationwide, said Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association. “They’re planning for a 50 percent cut in the program, and hoping it is not as bad as that.”

With its cold winters and heavy reliance on costly oil heat, New England is particularly vulnerable to high energy costs. Many poor and elderly on fixed incomes struggle with heating bills that can run into thousands of dollars.

Wolfe said it will cost on average about $3,300 to heat a home with oil this winter in New England, an increase of about $500 from last winter. About half of the region’s homes use oil heat, he said.

If federal funding is halved, Vermont could be forced to reduce its average household benefit by more than half, to about $400, Moffi said. Vermont’s average benefit last winter was $866.

Nearly a third of Vermonters receiving benefits are elderly and the vast majority rely solely on Social Security, Moffi said.

“We’re approaching this winter with trepidation,” said Dale McCormick, director of MaineHousing, a state agency that administers the federal assistance.

Maine, where about 80 percent of households use oil heat, would likely reduce its benefit levels, depending on the size of any federal cuts, she said.

Maine’s average benefit last winter was about $805 among 63,842 households served. The average income of recipients is $16,757.

“These are people who live close to the margin,” McCormick said. “They will have to cut food or medicine or transportation.”

New Hampshire plans to keep its benefit level the same as last winter, about $700. But the state would likely cut the number of households it assists if federal funding is reduced, said Celeste Lovett, who runs the program in New Hampshire.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said cuts could put the poor and elderly at risk in Massachusetts, where about 250,000 household got aid last winter.

“Cutting funding for LIHEAP could force thousands of Massachusetts families to choose between heating and eating,” Markey said in a statement.

Wolfe estimated that if federal funding is cut in half, Connecticut’s share would fall from about $102.9 million to about $51 million, while Rhode Island would drop from $31 million to about $13 million.

New Hampshire would go from $36 million to about $15 million, Wolfe said, while Massachusetts would fall from $183 million to about $102 million. Vermont would slip from $26 million to about $11 million. Maine would go from $54 million to $32 million.

In fall 2008, amid concerns about rising fuel prices, the government nearly doubled fuel assistance, releasing $5.1 billion to states for the following winter.

But last February, President Barack Obama proposed cutting the $5.1 billion program nearly in half. The House is expected to follow Obama’s lead, though the Senate Appropriations Committee recently approved a measure including bout $3.6 billion for the program. It’s unclear what Congress will finally decide.

Obama has said his proposed cut was based on the expectation that fuel prices would be lower this winter. He said that if prices spiked he would reconsider.

Heating aid advocates are urging him to take another look. New England governors in a recent letter to congressional leaders noted that August heating oil prices in the region were about $3.80 a gallon, an increase of more than 25 percent from 2010. Advocates said New England home heating oil prices are expected to be in the $4-per-gallon range this winter, an increase of about 15 percent over 2008.

“In this difficult budgetary climate where we must do more with less to put our nation back on a sustainable fiscal path, it is critical that families reliant on critical heating assistance this winter won’t bear the brunt of federal spending cuts,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, in a statement.

Over the years, the region’s lawmakers have often successfully fought cuts to the program in Congress, but this year’s tight budgetary constraints have dimmed such hopes.

Associated Press