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In summer, an eye on winter

Community Action kicks off fuel aid application process

Peter Wingate, director of energy programs at Community Action, talks about fuel assistance funds.  
(Recorder/Paul Franz)

Peter Wingate, director of energy programs at Community Action, talks about fuel assistance funds. (Recorder/Paul Franz) Purchase photo reprints »

GREENFIELD — It’s that perfect Massachusetts August filled with warm temperatures and days spent relaxing by Lake Wyola, hiking Mount Toby or practicing a golf swing at the country club.

The cold, dreaded winter months are far from most people’s minds unless you’re working in Community Action’s energy program department.

Community Action has begun mailing out applications for the Low-income Heating Energy Assistance Program, commonly known as fuel assistance, to residents for this coming winter.

By Oct. 1, 12,000 people throughout Franklin, Hampshire and the North Quabbin regions should receive a packet to re-apply. First-time applicants have to wait until Oct. 1 to start signing up and are required to have an interview at one of the four offices in Greenfield, Orange, Ware and Northampton. Applications are taken through April.

Director of Energy Programs Peter Wingate encourages people to apply no matter what they hear is happening to the budget on the federal level.

“We don’t want people to not apply because they hear we may get less money. There has never in the history of Massachusetts been a situation where someone who is eligible didn’t receive benefits,” Wingate said.

The fuel assistance program is available to both homeowners and renters, and covers the primary source of heat. It helps people with low incomes pay a portion of their home heating costs. Payments are not intended to cover the entire cost of annual home heating, but can alleviate some of the financial burden.

Community Action provided $5,910,278 in aid to households throughout western Massachusetts last winter to help pay fuel costs.

A total of 3,103 households in Franklin County were served last winter of the 7,342 total households served in western Massachusetts. Greenfield had the most residents receiving aid, 1,046, which cost $729,958.

Over the past few years, the number of homes receiving fuel aid has reflected economic changes — a pattern consistent across the 22 statewide Community Action agencies, Wingate said.

In 2008, 6,060 applications were approved. In 2011, the number jumped to 9,070 during the economic downturn. By 2014, the number of applications decreased to 7,546 for the Greenfield-based agency.

“It’s people who have been on fuel assistance in the past that are not coming back,” Wingate said. “We’d love to say we’re helping poverty, but that’s a bold statement. These are people for some reason or another are self-selecting out.”

The cost of fuel has also risen. In January 2014, it was up to $3.82 per gallon.

Households up to 60 percent of the state median income are eligible to apply for services. For a single-person household, the eligibility level is $32,065. For a four person household, the income eligibility is $61,664.

Benefit levels per household are based on household size and gross family income. The range of benefits per household for delivered fuels is $675 to the maximum of $1,125. The range of utility- and heat-included households is $385 to $635.

Participants can also get free weatherization work done on their homes. Community Action provides free energy audits, thermal and insulation audits and does weather stripping for tenants and homeowners.

As October approaches, Community Action braces itself for another unpredictable federal budget cycle.

Last year, the fuel assistance program received $18 million in state supplemental funds and the base amount of federal funding was $ 140 million. Wingate expects the program to be level-funded this year.

The funding, however, is always dependent on the priorities of Capitol Hill.

“It’s one of my biggest frustrations,” Wingate said. “People get mixed messages on whether they should sign up. We think you should go through the application process instead of waiting for an emergency.”

Every year, Community Action is required to set a budget in October, but it does not know how much it is receiving in federal aid until January — three months into the program.

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