For hundreds of county residents who've exhausted their heating assistance benefits this winter, Thursday brought news of some relief.

State lawmakers announced the release of $18 million in federal heating assistance funds in the midst of a bout of frigid weather.

While appreciated, said Tammy Biagini, Berkshire Community Action Council's fuel director, the funds won't approach the level of need in the county.

"It's a drop in the bucket," Biagini said. "The problem is people receive a small amount more in benefits, but they still can't afford to kick in the remaining $350 to pay an oil company for a 100-gallon delivery. For most companies, that's the minimum they'll do."

Cuts in recent years to the federal fuel assistance program, LIHEAP, were far more devastating than the new funds are helpful, Biagini said.

"It seems the budget gets cut every year," Biagini said. "People used to be able to make it through a whole winter with $1,200 in LIHEAP funds and now its more in the $800 to $900 dollar range. Every day we have people coming in crying saying they can't heat their houses."

After receiving $4.7 billion in 2011, LIHEAP was slashed to $3.5 billion by 2013 and is due to for another reduction in 2014, this time to $3.02 billion.

The LIHEAP cuts hurt still more in the face of 25-cent and 45-cent per gallon increases in the respective prices of heating oil and propane in Massachusetts since October.

Last year, BCAC helped provide fuel to roughly 8,000 homes and this year's total hovers between six and seven thousand. Biagini said the agency prioritizes seniors, households with small children and the disabled.

Local lawmakers too acknowledged the challenge.

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, pointed out a BCAC program that could prove part of the solution.

"Another way we can help people is to continue BCAC's very big push to weatherize the homes of people who receive LIHEAP," she said.

Such a measure cuts down on the wasteful use of fossil fuels while keeping people warm, she said.

Farley-Bouvier praised BCAC for its efforts and hoped the new fuel assistance money "gets to people as quickly as possible."

Before hearing the news of the new funds Thursday evening, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox said he was at a local church listening to some residents tell of their troubles keeping warm this winter.

"People are in desperate need of help," Pignatelli said. "You could probably double [the new funds] and still find plenty in need, so there's still a big gap, but this is always welcome news."

When the federal government began cutting LIHEAP, the state sought to ease the pain by kicking in roughly $20 million, Pignatelli said, but the budget item wasn't sustainable.

"We hope that these [federal programs] will remain a priority," he said.

In recent weeks, U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey and all nine of the commonwealth's members of the U.S. House of Representatives joined voices in admonishing the federal government to release the funds. Local U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal has called for the return of LIHEAP funding to its 2011 level.

Thursday's release of funds by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services totaled $454 million and will affect every state in the nation.

Also on Thursday, Warren and Markey praised the Senate's bipartisan passage of the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act.

The bill put a stop to sizable increases in flood insurance home and business owners would have had to pay if new flood insurance reforms were allowed to go into effect.

"I'm committed to working with my colleagues to make sure that families who played by the rules can stay in their homes," Warren said in a press release Thursday.

To reach Phil Demers:
pdemers@berkshireeagle.com
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On Twitter: @BE_PhilD