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McGovern advocates for more fuel aid

With the Polar Vortex plunging temperatures to record lows for days, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., has written to President Barack Obama to restore federal fuel aid funds.

McGovern joined four other members of Congress requesting additional funding for the Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which because of federal budget sequestration is down by $15 million from last year, to $113 million this year. For Community Action, which helps about 9,000 low-income families in Franklin and Hampshire counties with energy bills, the cuts mean that they’re able to get fewer deliveries of heating oil, gas, propane and other fuels, according to agency director Clare Higgins.

“Access to affordable home energy is not a luxury — it is a matter of health and safety,” McGovern wrote to Obama. “The number of households eligible for assistance continues to exceed available funding. Sequestration has further exacerbated these funding challenges.

“The average LIHEAP grant is estimated to cover less than half of the average home heating costs for a household this winter, meaning that many low-income families and seniors will have fewer resources available to meet other basic needs,” says the letter.

The average allowance for enrolled Americans in the program has decreased by more than $100 since 2010, according to McGovern’s office. Meanwhile, Higgins said, the cost of heating fuel has continued to mount. And with blistering cold temperatures this winter, some families have already used up their entire allotment, Higgins says.

“We’re barely able to help people fill their tank with oil for one fill,” said Higgins, adding that funding for the fuel assistance program has declined 17 percent over the past four years. He’s trying to get the level back up to where maybe we could get people to two fills on their oil.”

Temperatures this December and January have been about 20 percent colder than the same period last winter, according to data provided by the Sandri Companies.

People who heat with natural gas are doing a little better than that, she said, but many people who heat with oil find that they’re using up their maximum benefit with the first fill of their tank.

Peter Wingate, Community Action’s energy director, said that because the agency’s LIHEAP funding is down $900,000 from last year, the maximum per-household benefit level is down to $950 from nearly $1,500 three years ago.

“Because of the cold snap, we’ve seen people who are completely out of fuel assistance benefits really scrambling, and we’re getting a lot of people who are out of oil and people with frozen pipes,” Wingate said. “We’re talking to a lot of people who are using wood stoves that they haven’t used in years, who are hoping that they’re safe, and we’re talking to people who are using electric space heaters, which for the most part aren’t made to be a primary heat source. There’s a lot of difficult situations going on out there right now.”

About one-third of LIHEAP recipients heat with natural gas, which, along with relatively lower prices, also protects customers from being shut off from getting more fuel.

McGovern’s letter, pointing out that LIHEAP funding has dropped over 30 percent in recent years, says, “Nearly 1.5 million vulnerable households have lost access to critical LIHEAP assistance and struggle to pay for the basic necessity of home energy in addition to other essentials like food and medicine,” the letter states.

Also signing the letter to Obama were: Reps. Peter King, R-N.Y.; Rosa DeLauro, D -Conn.; Chris Gibson, R-N.Y.; and Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa.

Wingate said, “We’re really hoping that Congress will act and come up with a funding level that’s closer to what was three or four years ago, to get funding in place to get people another fuel oil delivery.”

He said that despite the funding cuts, the agency is still encouraging people to apply for the program, and that about 6,000 applicants have already done so, with another 3,000 or so expected. About half are from Franklin County.

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