In Wake Of Shutdown, Bureaucratic Delays Could Hamper Heating Aid

By Taylor Hartz
BU News Service

WASHINGTON—With the federal government reopened and money now approved for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, the South Shore Community Action Council has announced that it is accepting new applications for the LIHEAP as the program’s Nov. 1 start date approaches.

The 16-day government shutdown had threatened recipients of LIHEAP with an indefinite delay in the release of funds. The stopgap funding measure – known as a continuing resolution – that was approved by Congress last week funds LIHEAP at about the same annual level — $3.47 billion – as the 2013 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

But the fact that the current continuing resolution only extends through Jan. 15, combined with the prospect that so-called sequestration – automatic, across-the-board spending cuts – may kick in again on Jan. 1, has complicated efforts by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to determine how much funding each state will receive for the coming winter.

As a result, the South Shore Community Action Council is currently operating on a “worst case scenario” budget, said Lisa Spencer, the council’s director of energy and emergency programs — that scenario being President Obama’s proposed fiscal year 2014 budget, which requested $2.97 billion nationwide for LIHEAP.

And, even with the government reopened, there could be further delays in LIHEAP funds reaching state and local agencies.

Rep. Bill Keating, D-Mass., said Thursday that he was still “very concerned that funding allocations for this critical program – one that truly can make a difference between life and death for some families – may fall victim to gridlock in Washington.”

Added Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in a statement this week: “I hope this critical funding will be released as soon as possible – and at as high a level as feasible – so that people on the Cape and throughout the Commonwealth get the heating assistance they need.”

The Housing Assistance Corporation of Cape Cod attended a meeting Thursday where statewide agencies administering the LIHEAP program discussed the federal government’s schedule for distributing state allocations for LIHEAP.

Nancy Davison, vice president of the housing corporation, said agencies dealing with LIHEAP are facing “dire circumstances” if this distribution is not approved soon. In the absence of federal funds, these agencies will have no other resources available to process applications or to pay oil providers, she said.

Davison said there is some hope that, pending arrival of federal funds, these agencies could draw funds from the state’s Heating System Repair and Replacement Program by mid-November to make necessary payments.

According to National Energy Assistance Directors Association projections for this coming winter, temperatures are going to drop and oil prices are going to rise — but LIHEAP funding appropriations are not rising with them.

In a letter late last month to Senate leaders, Warren and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., indicated that, during the last four years, more than $60 million in cuts have been made to LIHEAP funding for Massachusetts – resulting in a 6 percent decline in the number of families that have been aided by the program since 2011.

The energy directors association has pushed for restoring the LIHEAP budget to the high water mark of $5.1 billion nationwide in the fiscal year 2010 budget. . They contend this funding increase is necessary simply to maintain current levels of assistance, under which LIHEAP helps to pay for about 42 percent of the heating costs for 8.8 million low-income households in the United States.

In the program year of 2012-2013, the South Shore Community Action Council received 13,500 LIHEAP applications and assisted 11,000 eligible households in Barnstable, Plymouth and Dukes counties with their winter heating bills.

During 2012-2013, the council served 1,137 households in Barnstable County, allocating $616, 554 in home heating assistance. The average amount of deliverable fuel benefits received per household was $870, with a maximum funding level of $1,125.

In the South Shore area, families with incomes ranging from $32,065 to- $71, 530 depending on household size may qualify for financial assistance with keeping their homes warm in the upcoming winter months.

An open application period for former LIHEAP recipients began in July, and 7,000 applications already have been received. First-time applicants have only been permitted to apply for assistance as of this past Tuesday, with applications being processed on a first-come first-serve basis.

According to the LIHEAP mission statement, 46.2 million people nationwide currently live below the poverty line, the largest number in the 52-year history of this data being kept.

Aggravating the situation on a national level is that the U.S. Energy Department expects temperatures in the Northeast to be approximately 3 percent colder than last winter, resulting in increased oil consumption.

In addition, Stacy MacIntyre of the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Analysis said that natural gas prices are projected to cost $1.80 per thousand cubic feet, a 15 percent increase.

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