Extended Shutdown Could Leave Mass. Households In Cold
By Shujie Leng
BU News Service
WASHINGTON –As Congress continues to argue over reopening the federal government, financial assistance to about 200,000 low-income households in Massachusetts who need help heating their homes this winter could be at risk in the event of a prolonged shutdown.
Although local communities can temporarily use available funding from the previous fiscal year to process applications for the coming winter, additional money for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program – commonly known as LIHEAP – is stalled by Congress’ failure to agree on funding for federal agencies for the fiscal year that began this month, even as the Nov. 1 start of the heating season looms.
Of the $132 million the state received for LIHEAP during the 2013 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 – out of a total nationwide allocation of $3.3 billion – only $1.5 million carry-over is left, according to Liz Berube, co-chair of the Massachusetts Energy Directors Association. This money, which has yet to be distributed, will be directed to 20 community action councils around Massachusetts, Berube said, allowing them to fund their respective programs for about two weeks.
“We are in the dark. That’s the problem. We don’t know when this government shutdown will end,” said Joe Diamond, executive director of Massachusetts Association for Community Action, a statewide association of 24 community action groups including those that administer the LIHEAP programs.
According to Diamond, federal funding for the program statewide has decreased from around $200 million at its peak in fiscal year 2010 to around $132 million in fiscal year 2013, after so-called sequestration —automatic budget cuts to reduce the deficit—took effect in March.
In September, Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass. and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., joined 32 other senators in a bipartisan letter to the Senate leadership, calling for allocating $3.47 billion to the program in fiscal year 2014. That is the same amount that was originally approved for fiscal year 2013, before sequestration sliced about $170 million from the program nationwide.
“We cannot allow threats of a government shutdown to force Americans to shut off their thermostats this winter due to cuts to this vital home energy program,” Markey said in a statement. “Sequestration is already leading to devastating benefit cuts to LIHEAP on top of the reductions that have occurred since 2010.”
The state has supplemented the program in the past. Diamond said he had sent a request to the Massachusetts Legislature prior to the government shutdown, asking for $20 million in state funds to supplement the coming year’s program – particularly in the event that federal funding is reduced further from recent levels. The legislature has yet to reach agreement on how much additional money will be provided.
Among 200,000 households receiving benefits from the program in Massachusetts, one-third use oil-fueled heating systems in winter. One-third of the beneficiaries are senior citizens on fixed incomes and already suffering from rising medical costs as well as fuel bills, Diamond said.
The Worcester Community Action Council provides heating assistance to around 15,000 households in the Worcester County every year, according to Jill Dagilis, its executive director.
With reduced staff for the effort due to sequestration, Dagilis said the program is now in a “modest service stage. But she said the shutdown has already strained the processing of applications for LIHEAP assistance this winter, adding that this will “have ripple compound negative effects.”
The Worcester Community Action Council received around $9.9 million in fiscal year 2013, and has been able to provide a maximum assistance level of $1,125 per household for oil. The price of a tank of heating oil is averaged at $950, and each household approximately uses three tanks of oil in winter, according to Diamond.
Having received around 6,000 applications for this year’s assistance so far, Dagilis said the cuts of recent years have made it difficult to do outreach to seniors who are in need of the heating benefits. She said she is worried that more households would be forced to use unsafe heating systems, such as space heater sand oven, to keep warm in winter.
“We’ve notified the fire department to [be] vigilant,” she said.