State facing $11M cut to heating aid this winter

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With the winter season bearing down on the Berkshires, the federal allotment that provides heating aid for lower income families has been cut by more than $11 million from last year's allocation.

The cuts in the allotment to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) come after the Trump Administration has twice tried to eliminate the program funding completely in its last two proposed federal budgets. The president tried to justify his actions by citing widespread fraud in the program without offering any evidence to support his claims.

As a result, the state will only receive $136.5 million, $11.2 million less than last winter. Overall, funding for the LIHEAP program was increased nationally by nearly $50 million, to $3.65 billion. Other nearby states also endured cuts: Rhode Island was cut by $3.1 million, Pennsylvania lost $8.1 million and Connecticut was underfunded by $5.4 million.

According to Tammy Biagini, LIHEAP director for the Berkshire Community Action Council, because the late fall temperatures have been colder than normal, some households have already exhausted their LIHEAP benefits. Families like these are facing that classic winter choice: whether to use the last of the money to pay for food, heat or medicine because there is not enough to pay for all three.

The average temperature in Pittsfield for November was 34.6 degrees —3.3 degrees below the norm, according to Tom Wasula, a meteorologist at the Albany office of the National Weather Service. For the first nine days of December, the temperatures averaged 2.9 degrees below norm.

"I have clients who have already exhausted their benefit and we're only a month into the cold weather," Biagini said. "That's scary."

She said roughly 8,000 households apply for LIHEAP in Berkshire County every winter, and with winter not officially arriving until Dec. 21, already 6,000 households have applied.

LIHEAP benefits are larger for applicants with less income and bigger households. Applicants on the higher side of the income scale will receive smaller benefits.

"Where you'll feel it the most is the working poor — the folks who just barely qualify," said Deborah Leonczyk, executive director of the Berkshire Community Action Council.

The cut of $11 million to a program that has been reduced by millions over the past few years is a significant problem for thousands of Bay Staters who are at risk of serious consequences to their health, according to Joe Diamond, executive director of the Massachusetts Association for Community Action.

"That is something we're very concerned about," Diamond said. "So we've involved in a campaign to secure $30 million to offset and to offset higher oil and gas prices."

Both state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said they fully expect to see legislation soon to authorize a supplemental budget allotment to bolster LIHEAP this season, but neither were sure how much that might be.

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"There's no reason we can't do something," Barrett said. "I know the (Berkshire County) delegation will step in and push for it, and I imagine the entire legislature will support it."

Barrett and Hinds both noted that the vast majority of LIHEAP beneficiaries are elderly and on limited or fixed incomes.

"When the temperatures drop it is the most vulnerable households we need to keep an eye on," Hinds said. "Many of them are not far from being in a life or death situation. So these cuts are deeply concerning. There has been talk of an appropriation from the supplemental budget, and I am in support of that."

Last year at this time, the average price of heating oil was $2.80 per gallon, according to the Massachusetts Energy Policy Planning and Analysis Division. This month it is $3.12 per gallon.

Meanwhile, Diamond noted that they are expecting an increase in the number of applicants for LIHEAP funding aid to grow by 20 percent or more statewide.

Biagini said that beneficiaries of LIHEAP might hope for a bit more than tank of heating oil, less than half of what they'll likely need to make it through the winter.

"Not so long ago, we'd receive $20 million more than this from the federal government," Diamond said. "And while the Massachusetts allocation has declined over the years, this reduction is of tremendous concern because we have seen those reductions over several years."

If the campaign to bolster the program with state funds is successful, Diamond said it could mean as much as another $400 to $500 per low-income household.

"That would help people get through the hardest part of the winter," he said.

Diamond noted that LIHEAP is an important economic aid program that also helps people be able to stay in their homes, so it has "an important housing component to it that supports overall health and safety. Many times, the LIHEAP benefit allows them to pay the rent if they're not devoting all their resources to the energy burden, not to mention food and medical needs."

Biagini said that in order to qualify for aid from the LIHEAP program, the net income for a household of one person can't exceed $35,510. For a family of two, they would qualify for heating aid if they make less than $46,437. A family of three bringing in less than $57,363 would qualify for heating aid, and a household of four would receive aid if their income is less than $68,289.

LIHEAP funding is distributed to the states through block grants. Each state decides how to administer and distribute those funds.

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


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