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Slim heat aid means cold times ahead

About 20,000 individuals from 8,000 households in Franklin and Hampshire counties received federal fuel assistance last year, and local officials estimate that number may be 10 percent higher this year.

Community Action — the human services agency that has facilitated the federally funded home energy assistance program to low-income homes in Franklin and Hampshire counties for the past three decades — is now two months into assisting the community during this heating season.

“Energy is becoming an increasing part of what people spend out of their pocket book,” said Clare Higgins, executive director of Community Action. “For many people, these choices around spending money on heat versus medicine versus food are really difficult.”

The agency expects to receive about $5.7 million this year — roughly the same as last year’s total but $1.5 million lower than its 2010 allocation. The money trickles down from the federal Department of Health and Human Services to the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development and then to local agencies.

The assistance is not limited to oil or gas, but covers all forms of heating sources, said Higgins.

Last year, 3,649 households in Franklin County received federal fuel assistance — including 1,174 in Greenfield.

But Peter Wingate, Community Action’s energy director, said that last year’s mild winter, with the exception of the October snowstorm, helped many keep low heating bills. The colder it is, the more applications Community Action will see, he said.

To qualify for fuel assistance, households must fall below certain income thresholds.

This heating season, for instance, the cut-off is $31,271 for a single person, $40,893 for two and $60,137 for a family of four.

The total amount of aid that households will receive varies on a sliding scale from $675 to $1,125. Of those who qualified in Franklin and Hampshire counties, about 30 percent were at the federal poverty level and received the maximum amount of assistance, said Wingate.

Community Action pays that money directly to the household’s fuel provider. Some may be qualified to receive additional supplemental funding for high energy usage.

Subsidized housing tenants and those who rent apartments where the heat is included can also receive assistance, although the amount is lower.

Of the 20,000 individuals served last year, about 35 percent were elderly or disabled, said Wingate.

‘Heat Up’ provides additional aid

The federal fuel assistance program only covers about 30 percent of an average household’s energy needs, according to Wingate. He said that even when the program provided more aid, it still “was not designed to carry someone through the winter.”

For some, the program just isn’t enough, said Higgins.

Families may have trouble paying the bills when the federal money runs out, she said. Or a medical or transportation emergency may arise that forces people to take money out of their fuel savings.

And others may be of low income, but just miss the federal cut-off. An income total that is $1 over the threshold would disqualify that family for fuel assistance money, Higgins said.

For the past four years, Community Action has run a “Heat Up” campaign, designed to provide that additional boost — usually equating to about one delivery of fuel.

Last year’s campaign, which relies solely on personal donations from the community, raised about $36,000 for 134 families, including 89 from Franklin County.

Higgins is hoping that Community Action can raise $50,000 this year. If that total is reached, the agency could expand the service to about 25 more households, she said.

Energy-efficiency benefits

Anyone who qualifies for fuel assistance will also receive a federally funded discount on electricity, said Wingate. Some houses see their electricity bills decrease by about 25 percent.

And those households also qualify for free energy-efficiency improvements, he said.

Community Action employees will take an energy audit of the home and assess the need for energy improvements. Most homes qualify for new energy-saving lightbulbs, with others receiving new refrigerators, boilers or insulation installments, he said.

“The days of putting up plastic and putting some caulking around a window are completely gone,” said Wingate. “This is all highly technical, highly skilled energy-efficiency measures we do on homes.”

Higgins said that Community Action employees contract the jobs with construction companies, and serve a similar role to “clerk of the works” to ensure that the job is done efficiently and effectively.

Last year, Community Action facilitated $3 million worth of energy-efficiency projects in Franklin and Hampshire counties.

To fund the projects, the agency receives a combined $550,000 from the federal Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Energy.

But a majority of the money, between $2 million and $3 million a year, comes from utility companies that are mandated to give certain amounts to help increase energy efficiency of low-income households, said Wingate. Those households would then have to pay a small charge on future bills which would go back into a company’s efficiency money, he said.

Accepting applications

Community Action is accepting applications for the fuel assistance program through April, said Higgins. Applications for “Heat Up” aid are accepted year-round, while money is available.

Wingate urged people to apply now if they foresee a need.

Proof of low income is required, as is an interview for all new applicants. Wingate said about 20 percent of the applicants each year are new.

For information on how to apply, contact Community Action at 413-774-2310 or 800-370-0940, or via email at energy@communityaction.us.

How to donate

Donations to the “Heat Up” campaign can be made online at www.communityaction.us.

Checks can also be made payable to “Community Action” and mailed to Heat Up!, 393 Main Street, Greenfield, MA 01301.

You can reach Chris Shores at:
cshores@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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