Clifford Oil

Federal money still is available to help pay heating bills in low-income households in the Berkshires.

PITTSFIELD — The coronavirus pandemic brought an unexpected lull in applications for fuel aid in the Berkshires. But, it masks household needs, because a moratorium on utility shut-offs until July has led many clients to delay submitting paperwork for assistance.

But, time is running out.

According to Deborah Leonczyk, executive director of the Berkshire Community Action Council, which administers the federal program locally, utilities usually start shutting down clients for nonpayment after May 28. This year, the risks associated with the pandemic forced a moratorium on shut-offs until July 1.

So, officials fear that folks might not realize that the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program application deadline falls before the deadlines for shut-offs. If they try to apply after the deadline, they will be denied, which could lead to a new set of problems.

“I just really hope people know how important it is to fill out that application,” Leonczyk said. “Folks need to understand that they will be shut off if they don’t file their application on time. After the deadline, it will be too late.”

According to Tammy Biagini, the council’s LIHEAP director, while the program has seen a stark increase in unemployed clients this year, slightly fewer people have applied for LIHEAP money this season.

She said that while there are typically 8,000 applicants, this year, the council has seen about 7,600. Depending on household income, LIHEAP can provide up to $1,300 in fuel assistance.

“Typically, those shut-off notices start coming in, it drives people to us for LIHEAP funding,” Biagini said. “But, this year, those notices will come too late.”

Many families find themselves at the end of winter with two or more months of heating bills to pay. The prohibition on winter power shut-offs usually expires April 15.

The money helps with the cost of oil, natural gas, propane, coal, pellets, wood, electric and kerosene.

To qualify, annual income for a household with one person cannot exceed $37,360. For a household of two people, the income maximum would be $48,855. For a family of five, household income cannot exceed $83,341. The program in the Berkshires typically distributes about $6.5 million, Leonczyk noted.

For more information or to learn how to apply for LIHEAP heating assistance money, call 866-216-6200 or visit bcacinc.org.

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or at 413-629-4517.