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Fuel assistance money still available for new applicants

GREENFIELD — Slightly more people in Franklin County have requested fuel assistance this winter compared to last, but an overall decrease across the Pioneer Valley means there’s money still available for new applicants.

The Franklin County numbers (3,500 applications compared to 3,000 last year) go against the trend anti-poverty agency Community Action is seeing across the state: despite a colder winter and higher fuel prices, fewer people are applying.

In Community Action’s entire coverage area — Franklin County, Hampshire County, the North Quabbin and parts of Hampden County — there have been 8,000 applications this year, compared to 9,000 last year.

The numbers have stumped both local and state energy officials. Executive Director Clare Higgins can only speculate that the overall decrease is because people may want to save fuel assistance money for others more in need.

That isn’t how the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) works, she said. Most people have already reached their federally regulated maximum allocations, and Community Action still has money for people who have not yet applied.

“If somebody thinks they need it, they should apply,” said Higgins.

The federal funding comes with strict allocation levels. Once a households reaches its maximum allocation, it won’t receive a single penny more from the program until next year.

A family of four that makes an income of $23,000 a year, for instance, can receive up to $1,280 worth of fuel. A single person who makes $30,000 a year can receive up to $765. Community Action works directly with the fuel providers to handle deliveries.

Officials say this allocation typically only makes up about 30 percent of a household’s winter heating costs. That’s why Community Action does a separate annual local fundraiser, “Heat Up,” which has already raised a record $45,000 and can provide some extra assistance for people in need.

Colder winter, higher fuel prices

Allocations are essentially the same as they were last year. People who live in subsidized housing or those who live in apartments with heat included in the rent can also qualify for some assistance.

But the fuel isn’t going as far this year in a colder winter with higher fuel prices.

This winter has been about 11 percent colder than last, according to Erin Hodgkins, customer service manage for the Greenfield-based fuel company Sandri.

From Sept. 1 to Feb. 27, the company measured just over 5,650 degree days (a unit used to determine how much energy is used to heat a building) this year, compared to just over 5,000 in the same period last year. The winter before that was even milder (nearly 4,750 degree days to that point).

Cost of oil — the fuel that over half of Franklin County fuel assistance recipients use ­— has risen from $3.73 per gallon to $3.95 per galllon, said Community Action officials. Other fuels, like propane, have seen increases due to national shortages.

Anyone who applies for the program gets a free household screen by Community Action’s weatherization team, which looks for ways to save energy in the home.

Energy Director Peter Wingate said that the program, which receives a majority of funding from utility company donations, replaces hundreds of refrigerators and heating systems every year. In some cases, it also pays for full insulation projects.

Program on track despite government shutdown

Even with new applications coming in, Community Action employees are still working on a backlog of applications. But Wingate said that the Greenfield-based organization is more or less on time with last year’s schedule, as opposed to other organizations across the state that were set back by October’s government shutdown.

Wingate and his staff just happened to start the process earlier this year and were able to have applications in hand when federal money stopped flowing for over two weeks this fall. The organization had enough money to keep its fuel assistance staff processing applications for 22 days, said Higgins. The shutdown ultimately lasted 16.

To apply, call 413-774-2318 or fill out an electronic application at www.communityaction.us/fuel-assistance.html.

Community Action is still accepting donations for the local “Heat Up” fundraiser. To donate, send a check payable to “Community Action” to Community Action, Attention: Heat Up!, 393 Main Street, Greenfield, MA 01301.

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