City, News, Politics

Lawmakers push legislation for aid in heating crisis

Several New England lawmakers re-introduced legislation Tuesday to increase funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a system that helps thousands of families in Massachusetts each year.

U.S. Rep. Ed Markey is one of four house democrats trying to increase the annual funding before the sequester slashes aid to such services.

“Working families in Massachusetts and around the country will have education, healthcare and other essential services cut because of sequestration,” Markey said in a statement Tuesday. “During such a harsh winter, no family should also worry about heating their home and keeping their kids and other family members safe from the weather.”

Markey released a report earlier this month indicating that funding to LIHEAP could be cut by as much as $6.7 million in 2013 year due to the sequester. These cuts would total about $1.6 billion in cuts to the program since 2010.

Kathy Tobin, energy services director for Action of Boston Community Development, said an estimated 50,000 households have already used all of their heating aid.

“We are estimating almost everyone will use up all of their aid before the winter is over,” she said. “We receive hundreds of calls and we have no funds to give and we are only at the end of February. Winter can last at least until May.”

Federal funding for heating assistance has slowed significantly this year, Tobin said.

“We received $21 million last year in additional funding,” she said. “We are urging the state to supply more because this winter has been significantly colder than last year.

Tobin said the pending sequester is to blame for the federal government’s lag in providing funding.

“We are still waiting on possible federal funds,” she said. “We could possibly get $8 million more but we really don’t know. Everything is on hold.”

Matthew Sheaff, director of communications for the Department of Housing and Community Development, said Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick has been pushing the federal government to front funding before the sequester.

“Governor Patrick has been a leader in calling on the federal government to fully fund — upfront — LIHEAP because as we know, the heating season, especially here in the Northeast, does not follow the fiscal cycles of Washington, D.C.,” he said. “Our maximum benefit level is based off the amount allocated by Congress.”

Joe Diamond, executive director of the Massachusetts Association for Community Activism, said a dramatic increase in the cost of heating has created more problems this winter.

“The price of heating oil has gone up remarkably,” he said. “And we see that, per home, it’s about 300 gallons (per tank) so it’s a couple thousand dollars that each home spends on heating and so most people receiving aid have used it already. Most went through it before January.”

Diamond said a significant decrease in federal and state funding has made the LIHEAP budget even smaller.

“Heating aid is a federal program, but since its low right now, we’re asking the state to supplement,” he said. “Last year they gave $126 million, this year $141 [million]. Before that we’d been getting about $200 million. We’re still in winter and it doesn’t show any signs of abating.”

The situation for applicants unable to get funds is poor, Diamond said.

“People would have to be very conservative in how they heat their home, and if people get desperate enough they might turn to dangerous methods like turning their stoves on or using face heaters,” he said. “People sometimes go without heat for the whole winter and that’s no good either.”

Diamond said when budgets are tight, some have to choose between buying food, medicine or heating.

The proposed legislation to increase funding will not go into effect until 2014 if it is passed, which will still leave a funding problem for the rest of this winter, Tobin said.

“Nobody knows what is going to happen in terms of this year’s funding,” she said. “What is happening now with the sequester will effect the next several years. Things look very bleak.”

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