Baker restores some funding for heating assistance after uproar over cuts

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NORTH ADAMS — After an outpouring of concern over cuts to low-income heating assistance, Gov. Charlie Baker's administration is reversing course.

Administration officials announced Monday an increase to $19 million in supplemental funding. The legislative allocation for heating assistance had been reduced from $30 million to $11 million for fiscal 2019.

Still, some are not satisfied and demand that Baker release, as intended by the legislators, the entire $30 million before the fiscal year ends in June.

Administration officials insist that the legislation allows for distribution of the money over the next two fiscal years.

Either way, Joe Diamond, director of the Massachusetts Association for Community Action, said the additional $8 million is a step in the right direction. It should help most of the 160,000 households aided by the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program avoid utility shut-off and lack of heat during the early spring months, and keep them fluid as the next cold season starts bearing down on the Northeast, he said.

"It is much appreciated, because it will help all our fuel assistance clients," Diamond said. "It is progress in the right direction."

LIHEAP was cut from $3.69 billion to zero in the fiscal 2020 budget proposed by the Trump administration. If that proposal holds, more than 7,000 Berkshire County households will be struggling to find money to heat their homes next winter. This year, Massachusetts received a 7.6% reduction in its LIHEAP allocation, which already had dropped from $200 million to $136 million in recent years.

Meanwhile, because the program's allotment to Massachusetts has been cut by millions in the past few years, Beacon Hill lawmakers passed a $30 million state appropriation to provide additional heating assistance for low-income households in the state's supplemental budget, which Baker signed.

But the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development issued a statement noting that only $11 million will be allocated to agencies for fiscal 2019, which ends June 30, and the remainder in fiscal 2020, which begins July 1.

The decision to increase the amount from $11 million to $19 million is an effort to aid thousands of families facing steep bills for late-winter heating, according to a statement issued on behalf of the Department of Housing and Community Development by Colleen Arons, senior director of communications for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.

"The Baker-Polito Administration is committed to providing home heating assistance for families and seniors in need and will support the use of $19 million in state funds in FY19 to fund a one-time increase in benefits this year, providing thousands of Massachusetts households with additional assistance for this year's heating costs and a head start for those who use oil on next year's winter heating season," the statement reads.

More information provided by Arons shows that the DHCD will spend $19 million of the $30 appropriation in FY19. Benefits will be increased for all eligible households by a total of $17.5 million. This will support an increase in household benefits from the start of the FY19 season. The remaining $1.5 million will be provided to the organizations that administer the program. Community Action councils across the state administer the distribution of the money to those in need.

The $11 million remaining in the supplemental appropriation will be available in FY20 as a partial offset to another anticipated reduction in federal fuel assistance funding next year.

Diamond explained that with $30 million, households using oil for heat would each receive 100 gallons to get them through the last of the cold weather and give them something to heat their home in the fall. It also would provide $100 to each household that uses either natural gas or electricity for heat, giving them the ability to avoid service shut-off for bills incurred during the last weeks of winter.

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With just $11 million, that plan would not have been possible. But with $19 million, Diamond noted, those using oil for heat will still get the 100 gallons, while households with electricity or gas will get $50 each to help pay down their bills and, hopefully, negotiate a plan with the utilities to avoid shut-offs.

Choosing between eating and heating

State Rep. John Barrett III, D-Northern Berkshire, said the Legislature intended the $30 million for this year to help low-income families in the aftermath of last winter, not next winter. If LIHEAP winds up underfunded again for next year, the Legislature likely would address it then.

But for this year, Barrett said, if the $19 million covers the need and folks aren't shut off from their utilities, that should be fine. But he wasn't sure it would be enough.

"We need to give the folks out there the ability pay their bills in full before the next heating season comes along," Barrett said. "And that should be in there as part of any compromise. People shouldn't have to choose between eating and heating. Whenever that happened, there was too much tragedy as a result."

Other elected officials and community organizers renewed calls Tuesday for the administration to deploy all $30 million in authorized spending, writing letters and holding a news conference outside Baker's office. The money is needed as soon as possible, they said, to help families in need ensure that they can afford utilities needed to heat their homes.

"This is not just a financial crisis that we're having," the Rev. June Cooper, president of City Mission in Boston, said at the news conference. "This is a moral issue when we're not able to take care of the most vulnerable residents of the commonwealth."

"This program benefits the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable households in the commonwealth," said Georgia Katsoulomitis, executive director of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. "It is certainly immoral that we have thousands of people every day in Massachusetts that have to make the very, very tough decision of, 'Do I pay my rent, do I buy food, do I buy medicine, or do I pay my utility bill?' "

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, penned a letter to Baker on Tuesday warning that withholding some of the money would "disproportionately and negatively affect the people in our region who rely on this critical social program."

Half a dozen other advocates, including state Rep. Liz Malia and Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, voiced their concerns at the Tuesday news conference outside Baker's office. A winter moratorium on utility shut-offs ended in March, they said, so low-income families face growing risks even amid warming weather.

Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, called Baker's decision not to deploy the full $30 million "unconscionable."

"I was shocked but not totally surprised that the governor only released a little under two-thirds of this allocation," said Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern. "Consistently, we are a state and leadership here that likes to show up for ribbon-cuttings at biotech companies in Kendall Square, but I would actually invite the governor to come sit with the people that I sit with every day, the people that come into my office begging for help and in incredible need of help."

State House News Service contributed to this report.

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


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