Berkshire delegation says Baker's cuts to LIHEAP 'a shock'

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NORTH ADAMS — With the Trump administration trying to eliminate federal funding to aid low-income families with the cost of heat, Gov. Charlie Baker has undercut the Legislature's attempt to make up for cuts to the program by reducing the amount of state funding by $19 million.

The Berkshire County delegation is not pleased.

"Although the state shouldn't have to provide this funding — it should come from the federal government — this kind of funny business with state money isn't OK," said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield. "So, there will be a tremendous amount of pressure on the governor to reverse his stand. Many of our most vulnerable families need this funding."

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) was cut from $3.69 billion to zero in the fiscal 2020 budget proposed by President Donald Trump's team. If that proposal holds, more than 7,000 Berkshire County households will be struggling to find money to heat their homes next winter.

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 in the state's supplemental budget, which Baker signed, to provide additional heating assistance for low-income households.

But in an email Friday, Ed Kiely of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development said $11 million will be allocated to agencies for fiscal 2019, which ends June 30, and the remainder in fiscal 2020, which begins July 1.

"This came as a shock to all of us," said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield. "And so far, I haven't heard a real explanation."

State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, said this wasn't a veto, so it isn't something the Legislature can override.

"But we can sure put pressure on [Baker]," Barrett said.

The law that Baker signed allocating $30 million for LIHEAP includes a clause that says "any unexpended funds in this item shall not revert but shall be made available for the purpose of this item until June 30, 2020."

In January, Baker asked lawmakers to approve $11 million to offset federal reductions in LIHEAP money.

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, said that the department had determined that $11 million would be enough to bring the benefits up to 2018 levels, and that the rest would be needed to do the same next year.

"The Baker-Polito Administration is committed to providing home heating assistance for families in need, and this year will maintain the maximum benefit levels for families with the greatest need and offer additional funding to 66,000 households eligible for this program," the statement reads. "Given the recent reductions of federal funding, the administration believes it is critical to ensure an appropriate amount of funding, which is allocated over two years, is available for Commonwealth families next year, particularly to safeguard against factors like a harsh winter or higher fuel prices."

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Joe Diamond, executive director of Massachusetts Association for Community Action, said he has proposed a compromise to legislators and the Baker administration. Community Action councils across the state administer the distribution of the money to those in need.

He said the original plan was to provide 100 gallons of oil to oil-heated homes and $100 to gas- and electricity-heated homes. To do that with all 160,000 homes on the LIHEAP program in Massachusetts, it would cost the $30 million. The compromise he proposed cuts to $50 the benefit for gas and electric heat. So, he hopes to get backing to distribute $19 million for the rest of this fiscal year, and the remaining $11 million starting in October for fiscal 2020.

But gas and electric customers who still owe money to the utilities are on the verge of getting shut down. "Our concern is that time is of the essence," he said.

In a letter to Baker, Diamond wrote on behalf of communication action groups, "The bottom line is that far less than half of the 160,000 households served with fuel assistance would benefit if only $11 million is distributed."

"The poorest of the poor" — those earning 150 percent of the federal poverty level or less — would not receive any additional fuel assistance under the $11 million allocation, Diamond wrote.

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, according to information provided by Hinds.

State legislators outside the Berkshires also are spoiling for a fight over the supplemental LIHEAP money.

Describing himself as "quite upset," Action for Boston Community Development President John Drew said the administration is "holding back" on $19 million in new state money, even though families are struggling with bills and facing shut-off notices.

"I'm totally frustrated with this," Drew told the State House News Service. "This is not the way the world should run."

House Speaker Robert DeLeo and House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz issued a statement echoing Drew's pique.

"On behalf of the House, we encourage the Baker Administration to release the full $30 million the Legislature appropriated, and the Governor signed, for LIHEAP. These are critically important funds to support some of the most vulnerable families in the Commonwealth," DeLeo and Michlewitz said.

Aleta Moncecchi, deputy director of the Berkshire Community Action Council, which administers the LIHEAP program locally, noted that among the 7,000 households served by LIHEAP money, about 2,500 of them had run out of their heating assistance money by mid-December.

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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