State lawmakers reached out to Gov. Charlie Baker Jan. 17 to assist state residents at risk of a federal funding shortfall in the low-income heating assistance program known as LIHEAP, which serves 160,000 households in the state.
More than 70 House and Senate members joined State Sen. Bruce Tarr (R- Gloucester) and Sen. Michael Rodrigues (D- Westport ) in requesting a $30 million appropriation to shore up shortages in heating fuel access. They say that most of the nearly 48,000 supported oil heat households have exhausted their fuel assistance benefit and all will have exhausted it by the end of January, leaving them in a perilous position for the rest of the winter.
“Keeping warm in the winter is an essential part of life in New England, and it’s important to the health and safety of many residents who would be vulnerable without this type of assistance,” said Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr. “Seniors, veterans, families with children and others are counting on our Commonwealth to provide the home heating support they need, particularly in light of the federal reductions.”
The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) provides eligible households with help in paying a portion of winter heating bills. Eligibility, based on household size and the annual income of every adult household member, provides assistance for electric and gas utility bills and other heat sources including oil and propane.
“We have to act now in order to protect the most vulnerable members of our community,” Rodrigues said. “This money isn’t going to mean much in May or June, so it’s critical that we do this as soon as possible.”
“This winter heating season has been already difficult on those who heat their homes with deliverable fuels such as oil, and particularly those, such as the elderly and disabled, who need help keeping their homes warm,” said Rep. Will Crocker (R-Centerville). “Costs are increasing and assistance is decreasing; couple that with the colder than usual winter, and you have an extremely dangerous situation. I ask that the Governor act swiftly to provide for more fuel assistance in a supplemental budget.”
Lawmakers have connected with the Massachusetts Association for Community Action (MASSCAP), Massachusetts AARP, and the leaders of dozens of nonprofit human service and advocacy organizations across the state to respond to the growing need.
“Prolonged bitterly cold weather and rising heating oil prices have combined to make staying warm this winter a nightmare for tens of thousands of vulnerable households who heat with oil,” said Joe Diamond, MASSCAP’s executive director. “Particularly at risk are children, seniors, and veterans across the Commonwealth. This is all made worse by the fact that Massachusetts is faced with a cut of $11 million in its federal fuel assistance allocation this year.”
The fuel assistance program administered by the state Department of Housing and Community Development and carried out by community action agencies and other community groups has had a an increase in applicants of over 20 percent from last year.
The lawmakers, hopeful for a swift resolution, note that there has been significant cooperation between the branches over the past three decades in responding to limited federal funding and extreme winter weather conditions.